House Ethics Trial Opens for Democrat Charles Rangel

November 15, 2010 - 7:08 AM

Charles Rangel

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. walks to a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on Chinas exchange rate policy, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010, on Capitol Hill in Washington. On Tuesday, Rangel, a 40-year House veteran, easily won renomination in his first time on the ballot since the House ethics committee accused him of 13 violations, most of them relating to his personal finances. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Washington (AP) - Rep. Charles Rangel of New York headed the House's tax-writing committee but acknowledged shortchanging the Internal Revenue Service on his own tax bill. Now, a House ethics panel will judge whether filing an amended tax return and belatedly paying his taxes and other financial and fundraising practices violated the congressional rule book.

A rare ethics trial begins Monday for the representative from Harlem. Rangel's career peaked in 2007 when he became chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. It took a dive last March, when he relinquished that post after his corporate-funded travel was criticized in a separate ethics case.

Rangel, first elected in 1970 and now 80 years old, apparently is without a lawyer. He and his defense team parted company a few months after he complained in an August speech on the House floor that he could no longer afford legal bills that had reached nearly $2 million.

The ethics investigation goes back to at least July 2008. Only former Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, who was expelled from the House after a criminal conviction, has faced a similar trial since current House ethics procedures were adopted two decades ago.

Key charges portray Rangel as a veteran congressman who thought he could ignore rules on disclosing his assets, and improperly used official resources to raise money for a college center that was a monument to his career.

But an allegation that caught the public's eye was his failure to declare rental income to the IRS from a resort unit he owned in the Dominican Republic.

The case has generated its share of political game-playing. Republicans on the House ethics committee demanded that the proceeding be held before the election, when the trial of the House's fourth-most-senior member could have embarrassed Democrats. The Democratic committee chairman, Zoe Lofgren of California, rejected the request.

Rangel was charged by an investigative panel of four Democrats and four Republicans with 13 counts of violating House rules.

A separate group of eight, four from each party, will act as a jury to decide whether there's "clear and convincing evidence" that House rules were broken. Ethics committee lawyers will function as prosecutors.

If Rangel is found to have violated rules, the ethics committee would meet to decide punishment. It could end the case with a critical report, or recommend a House vote expressing displeasure with Rangel's conduct.

Rangel has acknowledged ethical lapses; he's argued he did not intend to break the rules.

The charges allege violations of:

--A House gift ban and restrictions on solicitations. Rangel is accused of using congressional staff, letterhead and workspace to seek donations for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. The requests usually went to charitable arms of businesses with issues before Congress, including Rangel's Ways and Means Committee.

--A U.S. government code of ethics. Several allegations fall under this code, among them: Accepting favors (the Rangel Center donations) that could be construed as influencing Rangel's congressional duties; acceptance of a rent-subsidized New York apartment used as a campaign office, when the lease said it was for residential use only; and failure to report taxable income.

--The Ethics in Government Act and a companion House rule requiring "full and complete" public reports of a congressman's income, assets and liabilities each year. Rangel is charged with a pattern of submitting incomplete and inaccurate disclosure statements. He only filed amended reports covering 1998 to 2007 after the investigative ethics panel began looking into his disclosures. He belatedly reported at least $600,000 in assets.