It has always been hard to overlook the high-profile Congressman from Harlem. If one ever had the privilege of meeting him, it was impossible to ignore his sharp intellect, his commanding presence, his booming voice or the smartly tailored suits. The defrocked chairman of one of the most powerful committees in Congress, like too many African-American political figures, has been accused of unethical lapses in judgment.
Adam Clayton Powell, who rose to chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, represented Harlem from 1945 to 1971. And when Congress refused to seat him, he took his case all the way up to the United States Supreme Court and won. However, when Powell sought re-election, he was defeated by Charles Rangel, a political upstart.
Now the man who replaced the legendary Powell nearly 40 years ago is on the verge of being censured by his colleagues. The House Ethics Committee, formally known as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, voted 9-1 to recommend censure of Rangel, who was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee until he was asked to step aside last year, pending the outcome of the ethics investigation. The full House is expected to adopt the recommendation shortly after the Thanksgiving recess. Censure is mid-range of the three options available to the House. A reprimand is the mildest form of discipline and expulsion is the most extreme.
According to a 2005 report by the Congressional Research Service, “While there are no House Rules regarding the consequences of a ‘censure,’ the two political parties in the House themselves have adopted their own internal party rules which in recent years have generally barred from the chairmanship of committees and subcommittees those Members who have been censured during that Congress.”
Earlier, when the charges first became public, Rangel was defiant, urging his detractors to bring it on. And when they did, Rangel became a broken man, a sad and lonely figure standing before the House Ethics Committee last week, alternately combative and pleading for leniency.
The latest chapter was in sharp contrast to the man who stormed out of the committee’s opening session after charging – incorrectly – that he had been denied the right to have a lawyer present. It turned out that no one had denied him that right; his attorneys had abandoned him after concluding that although he had already paid them more than $2 million in legal fees, they were not optimistic that the embattled congressman would be able to pay the additional $1 million they estimated it would take to continue representing him.
The committee found Rangel guilty of 11 of the 13 charges. The charges were an outgrowth of Rangel’s violation of House ethics rules and local, state and federal laws in connection with his solicitation of donations on behalf of the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York, his use of a rent-stabilized apartment for his campaign committee, and his failure to complete accurate financial disclosure statements and file truthful federal tax returns in connection with rental property he owns.
Specifically, the committee’s investigation found:
• Between 2005 and 2008, Rangel sent letters soliciting funds for the center named in his honor to more than 100 companies that had business pending before the House Ways and Means Committee, including the foundation arms of Verizon, AT&T, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Merrill Lynch, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Goldman Sachs and Wachovia.
• Rangel improperly sent the solicitations out on his congressional letterhead in violation of House rules. In the request for donations, he included a brochure asking each for a lump sum of $40 million or $6 million a year for five years.
• By using his congressional letterhead, Rangel’s conduct “created the mistaken appearance that the Rangel Center was a project endorsed by the government.”
• Congressional staff, telephones, computers, printers, stationery, other office supplies, and franking resources were used improperly in violation of House rules.
• In addition to violating New York City’s zoning regulations and building code, Rangel’s use of a rent-stabilized apartment as an office for his campaign “may be construed by reasonable persons as influencing the performance of his official duties,” another violation of the House’s code of ethics.
• One of the counts against Rangle alleges “…Rangle also violated tax laws by failing for 17 years, to report, and pay tax on, rental income on a beach villa in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.”
• The cumulative effect of Rangel’s action, according the findings, “reflected poorly on the institution of the House and, thereby brought discredit to the House” in violation of the chamber’s code of conduct.
Under questioning from Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), the only member of the 10-person committee who voted against censure, Blake Christian, the committee’s chief counsel, said: “Do I believe that based on the record that Congressman Rangel took steps to benefit himself based on his position in Congress? No. I believe that the congressman, quite frankly, was overzealous in many of the things he did. And sloppy in his personal finances.”
The hearing on Rangel’s ethics violations began Monday, November 15. After abruptly exiting the committee hearing on the first day, Rangel returned three days later to plead for what he called fairness and mercy.
“Today I stood before the Ethics Committee to apologize for the embarrassment I have brought upon this body that I love dearly, and to the Members of Congress, and to my family and constituents,” he said in a statement. “There has never been any corruption or personal gain in my actions as the Committee’s chief counsel noted. Neither has there been any intent on my part to violate the House rules. My actions may have been sloppy, or even stupid, but never corrupt.There is no excuse for my acts of omission and failures to abide by the rules of Congress.”
Rangel will face more public embarrassment when he stands in the House well as incoming speaker of the House John Boehner publicly read the House resolution censuring him.
The resolution, expected to easily pass the House, reads:
Resolved, That (1) Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York be censured; (2) Representative Charles B. Rangel forthwith present himself in the well of the House for the pronouncement of censure; (3) Representative Charles B. Rangel be censured with the public reading of this resolution by the Speaker; and (4) Representative Rangel pay restitution to the appropriate taxing authorities or the U.S. Treasury for any unpaid estimated taxes outlined in Exhibit 066 on income received from his property in the Dominican Republic and provide proof of payment to the Committee.
Having Boehner preside over his censure will be especially distasteful for Rangel. Although the House censure involves only one apartment rented by Rangel in Harlem’s Lenox Terrace, he has combined three other rent-stabilized units to serve as his personal residence. In July, the House voted to table a resolution offered by Boehner that would have censured Rangel for having “dishonored himself and brought discredit to the House” by occupying the four apartments. Rangel pays less than $4,000