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Charles Rangel ethics case tests new Congressional openness

The public airing of Charles Rangel's alleged ethical lapses is the highest profile test of the 2006 Congressional pledge of greater accountability.

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Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel arrives for a news conference Friday in New York. Rangel, once among the most powerful members of Congress, will face a hearing on charges of violating House ethics rules after a panel of his peers formally accused him of wrongdoing Thursday.

Mary Altaffer/AP

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In another era, Rep. Charles Rangel’s alleged ethical lapses – unpaid taxes, questionable use of rent-controlled apartments, and pay-to-play fundraising – might have slipped through the House ethics process with no consequence.

The system was secret and largely unaccountable – a virtual black box of incumbent protection, critics said. But a new, independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), launched in 2008, is exposing lawmakers and their system of self-policing to unprecedented to public scrutiny.

The Rangel trial, which opens July 29, will be its highest profile test since Democrats took back the House in 2006 on a pledge to clean and “drain the swamp.” Congressman Rangel, former chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, requested in September 2008 that the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, formally launch an investigation into the allegations against him in the press. He says that he expects to be vindicated.

The House ethics panel took nearly two years before charging Rangel with violating ethical standards, which the panel has yet to specify. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California, who chairs the panel, will head an eight-member, bipartisan adjudicatory subcommittee.

Some public interest groups say that House members would not have taken this case so far against one of their own without pressure from outside groups.

On Feb. 26, 2010, the independent Office of Congressional Ethics released a 329-page report documenting that Rangel had knowingly accepted corporate-sponsored travel to the Caribbean in violation of Houses rules. In response, the House ethics panel “admonished” Rangel.

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