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Charles Rangel careens toward House trial; Democrats keen to avoid it

A hearing by House ethics investigators is expected to convene Thursday for Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel. In an election season, corruption allegations can be toxic for the party in power.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., stands in the corner of the elevator as he leaves his office for to go vote on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 28.

Alex Brandon/AP Photo

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Twenty-term Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York was as close as the House comes to invincible – a powerful committee chair, winning his last race with 89 percent of the vote – until the ethics woes he couldn’t talk away led to Thursday’s scheduled launch of a rare House trial.

Up to now, these alleged violations have been mainly speculation, culled from press reports and jeremiads from ethics watchdog groups. These include reports of tax evasion, improper use of four rent-controlled apartments in New York, corporate-funded travel in violation of House rules, and soliciting funds for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service on official stationery from people with business before the panel that he chaired. In one reported account, Representative Rangel, then chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, agreed to preserve a loophole for an oil driller who had just pledged $1 million to the Charles B. Rangel Center.

But with the expected convening of an open hearing by House ethics investigators at 1 p.m. Thursday, the charges are formal, out in the open, and grist for fall midterm elections.

To avoid a trial, Rangel could cut a deal with the ethics panel and publicly admit wrongdoing, or he could resign his House seat. Three House Democrats have called for his resignation, even before the charges were made public. Other lawmakers are expected to do the same on Thursday.

In an election season, corruption allegations can be toxic for the party in power. Newt Gingrich used the ethics lapses of Democrats as a club for Republicans to take back the House in 1995, after the GOP had been in the minority for 40 years. In 2006, Democrats returned the favor, as they used the influence-peddling scandals around ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff to upend GOP control.

Mr. Abramoff’s Jan. 3, 2006, guilty plea in a D.C. court gave Democrats a powerful image for their 2006 campaign. That’s why Rangel, his lawyers, and House Democratic leaders have been pressing to quietly settle the case before the House ethics panel’s “adjudicatory subcommittee” details public charges against Rangel.

Thursday’s charges, public-interest groups say, could go to the heart of the pay-to-play culture on Capitol Hill that has undermined the reputation of Congress for decades – or they could focus on relatively minor reporting errors.

“With Rangel, it remains to be seen what happens when they present their case. He sent out letters on official stationery trying to raise money for the Charles B. Rangel Center, then met with people shortly after his fundraising pitches with business before the Ways and Means Committee,” says Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation in Washington. “If the charges all focus on financial disclosures and paperwork, it’s far less interesting at getting at how Congress really works.”

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Barring a last-minute deal, here’s how events will play out. At 1 p.m., House ethics investigators release their Statement of Alleged Violations against Rangel. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California, who chairs the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, and Rep. Michael McCaul (R) of Texas, the top Republican on the eight-member adjudicatory subcommittee, will preside. (The ethics panel is the only House committee that is strictly bipartisan, with members of both parties equally represented.)

Neither Rangel nor his lawyer is required to respond to the charges at that time. But Rangel, who called on the ethics panel to investigate the allegations against him two years ago so he could be cleared, has signaled that he may have a statement.

“I am pleased that, at long last, sunshine will pierce the cloud of serious allegations that have been raised against me in the media,” he said in a July 22 statement. “I will be glad to respond to the allegations at such time as the ethics committee makes them public.”

With the House breaking for a six-week recess this week, the trial by the adjudicatory subcommittee won’t begin until September. Its findings must be affirmed by the full ethics committee, then voted on by the House. Sanctions range from reprimand or censure to expulsion from the House.

For years, the ethics panel has had a reputation of sweeping ethics allegations under the rug. That’s why Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed hard for a new, independent Committee on Ethics to reassure the public that Democrats want to lift ethics to a higher level.

“Typically, the ethics committee doesn’t act unless there is not just a smoking gun, but an exploding gun, throwing things all around them,” says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “They may end up throwing the book at Rangel, just to show they’re tough.”

A founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rangel is a decorated war hero. He defeated Harlem icon Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. – himself expelled by the House for ethics violations in 1967 and later reelected – in the 1970 Democratic primary.

He worked up the ranks to chair the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. In March, Rangel stepped down as chair of that panel after a reprimand by the House ethics panel for accepting corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean. He faces a contested Democratic primary on Sept. 14, with New York State Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV as his leading rival.

Without commenting on his legal issues, he ended a brief appearance before the National Urban League on Wednesday with this thought: “All I can promise you is when the sun is shining and everything is settled, we once again will be standing together with dignity and with honor to complete our jobs for our communities and for this great United States.”

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