The ethical shoe now on the other foot

There is irony in the timing of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's seedy, sorry, political “crime spree” exploding into the news the same week that an earnest independent who ran as a Republican upset a crooked, felonious Democrat in Louisiana to become the first Vietnamese-American elected to the U.S. Congress.

Republicans are jubilant and are hailing Anh “Joseph” Cao as the future of their party. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued an exuberant memo calling the surprise victory “a symbol of our future,” adding it is what “can be achieved when we think big, present a positive alternative, and work aggressively to earn the trust of the American people.” Yes, it’s true that Rep. William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson had fended off challengers before, despite being an indicted felon charged with taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. But sooner or later, corrupt and ethically challenged incumbents do lose, and in the last two cycles Democrats have benefited from knocking off a number of them. If the Republicans hope to return to power in the House and Senate, they may get tired of waiting for members of Congress who get caught stashing piles of cash in their freezers — people like that only come around once in a while.

Yet Republicans now have a good talking point to connect Blagojevich, who served three terms in the House seat once held by former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, and the man in Rostenkowski's chair at the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY). Like Rostenkowski, who was indicted for his role in the House post office scandal and later served prison time for mail fraud, Rangel wields the powerful and coveted gavel at the tax writing committee. He is now the subject of an ethics investigation into taxes he hasn't paid, as well as possible influence peddling because of questions surrounding his efforts to preserve a costly tax loophole for someone donating to a school established in Rangel's name.

Pending the outcome of an ethics investigation, Rangel retains his chairmanship. Just this week, as FBI agents prepared and then conducted their raid to arrest Blagojevich at home at 6:15 in the morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told NBC's “Today Show” that she didn't see “any reason” that Rangel should step down. Within another few hours, the House ethics committee announced it was expanding its investigation of Rangel. "Until they make their decision, which I hope will be soon — I think that he should stay as chair of the committee," Pelosi said.

The most damning of questions for the ethics panel is Rangel's meeting with Eugene Isenberg in February of 2007 to discuss his $1 million donation to the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York, according to The New York Times. It was at that same meeting that Isenberg had Rangel talk with his lobbyist about keeping the multimillion-dollar tax loophole that benefits his oil-drilling company. Rangel calls this a coincidence. But the list of Rangel’s coincidences have run longer than credibility can be strained. He was also found to be paying rent far lower than market price in his Harlem apartment building on four apartments, one of which was used illegally as a campaign office, he underreported the value of a real estate property in Florida, and owed taxes on $75,000 in rental income on a vacation home in the Dominican Republic. He has reportedly also broken ethics rules by using his House stationery to seek support for the school named after him, and he has failed to fully report some privately sponsored trips on travel disclosure forms.

Rangel's long list of “coincidences” has produced more than enough smoke to cost him his leadership post — at least temporarily. The GOP is drooling delightedly over Pelosi's sustained defense of him. Pelosi knows better than anyone that a potent cocktail of scandals involving now-ex-Reps. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), Bob Ney (R-Ohio), Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and -Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho) helped propel Democrats back into power against the “culture of corruption” in the midterm elections of 2006 and pick up additional ethically challenged seats this cycle as well.

When she rose to Speaker of the House, Pelosi personally promised to “drain the swamp.” She has exercised her power skillfully in her short Speakership, but this will be her biggest test yet. Democrats saw the hand of Pelosi in the ousting of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) last month from his chairmanship of the House Commerce Committee. It arose because of longstanding policy disagreements, and, arguably, ethics should rank as high as policy differences when it comes to leadership posts. Rangel may be one of her loyal lieutenants, and she may fear the ire of the Congressional Black Caucus should she ask him to step aside, but if she doesn't act decisively, Pelosi's own credibility will soon be on the line.