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The Rangel case — Lessons from Sherrod?

Today the ethics subcommittee announced charges that Rangel had violated House ethics rules. I may or may not be able to address these charges specifically, since as his former attorney, I face constraints of attorney-client privilege and am not familiar with all the facts subsequently uncovered when, in the fall of 2008, the representation was transferred to a law firm more expert in ethics committee litigation.

But even the committee members who voted out the charges would agree: Charles Rangel is entitled to due process and the presumption of innocence, before everyone jumps to the conclusion that he is guilty as charged. Even the full ethics committee has not ever heard and decided on whether to approve the findings of the subcommittee.

Yet for the last week and really ever since Rangel was tried and convicted in many of the nation’s leading newspapers, based on reporting and editorials that drew conclusions from allegations without waiting for Rangel’s full response with rules of evidence and due process of law, Republicans and commentators have been demanding that he resign from office, based on those newspaper stories and editorials alone. Reporters and commentators have loosely used the word “corruption” — a term defined as intentional misconduct, usually for personal financial gain — to describe the charges even before they were made. And in Thursday’s coverage and after, that word was used repeatedly to describe Rangel’s offenses.

This isn’t the first time I have written a newspaper column warning about a society that has come to regard an indictment alone as the functional equivalent of guilt. When then Republican Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska) was first indicted, I wrote a column: “Ted Stevens Is Presumed to Be An Innocent Man.” (His guilty verdict was ultimately overturned due to gross governmental misconduct.) I am old enough to remember the terrors of the McCarthy era, when the presumption of guilt was the rule and presumption of innocence the exception.

But I can offer three questions that need to be answered based on the facts that come out if Rangel is to be treated fairly.

First, were his actions honest mistakes of judgment or carelessness — or intentional actions to misuse his office to enrich himself personally?

This is a critical distinction. If the latter, that is, by definition, corruption — for example, what sent former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) to jail. If the former, it is simply inaccurate and unfair to describe his mistakes as “corruption.” Cunningham taking money for his own bank account in return for selling his vote or doing special favors for contractors is the definition of public corruption and venality.

Second, did Rangel significantly enrich himself as a result of his ethical mistakes, if he is found to have made them? Were his actions motivated by greed and venality?

Third, if he is found to have violated House ethics rules, what is the appropriate punishment to fit the offense? Here’s a man who has served in Congress for over 40 years, who founded the Congressional Black Caucus, who won the Purple Heart, the Bronze star and other medals for heroism that saved 40 lives in the Korean War; a man who has always been an affable and collegial colleague in the Congress, among Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives; and a man who until the last two years has never had a word uttered about him suggesting he was unethical in any way.

I know that even some Democrats, anonymously of course, are hoping that Charlie Rangel will resign so that Republicans can’t label the Democratic Party with the “culture of corruption” tag — a phrase I believe Democrats unfairly used in the 2006 elections to try to associate most honest Republicans with a few dishonest ones like Randy Cunningham.

I believe Rangel is an honorable man. If everyone can just take a breath, as they weren’t willing to do for Shirley Sherrod, and give this good and kind man a chance to defend himself based on the facts, then I am confident his fair-minded House colleagues, Democratic and Republican — meaning most members of the House from both parties — will find a way to resolve this matter in an honorable way for everyone.


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