The bizarre case of Rep. Charles Rangel, the once-powerful New York Democrat finally found guilty Tuesday of 11 ethical violations, shows much that is wrong and little that is right in the way the House Ethics Committee manages its work.
The committee took two years and spent $1.6 million, as a Common Cause official correctly stated Tuesday, "to establish facts that seemed clear at the outset and in the end were not disputed." Even so, the committee's prosecutor gently found that Rangel's egregious financial shenanigans amounted simply to "sloppy" accounting, rather than the crimes of tax evasion and selling political favors.
Common sense suggests the latter is closer to the truth. The accusations against Rangel, first raised two years ago, charged him with failure to pay $60,000 in state and federal taxes on rental income from a beach villa in the Dominican Republic; helping keep a legislative loophole worth hundreds of millions of dollars to an oil company from which he was soliciting a gift of $1 million for a public policy center being built in his honor; and failure to report assets worth hundreds of thousands of dollars on his financial disclosure forms.
The case arose after New York papers reported Rangel wrongly possessed four rent-stabilized apartments in New York City and had improperly reported his income. Yet its tortuously slow progress before the House Ethics Committee made it clear that fellow members of Congress from both parties have little stomach for enforcing ethics rules on one of their own.
Rangel's own conduct defies belief. He promised for months that he couldn't wait for a full hearing to prove his innocence, but kept putting it off. And on Monday, when his hearing finally came, he pleaded for a delay because he had run out of money to pay his lawyers -- and then walked out of the hearing when he was denied a delay. Never mind that he had been instructed months ago to establish a defense fund if he needed it, or that he could have liquidated or mortgaged some of his assets to continue to pay his lawyers.
The 80-year-old congressman's conduct was strange by any standard, but especially so given his 40-year history as Harlem's prominent congressman. For a man who recently chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committed, his was a conspicuous fall from power.
The Ethics Committee's poor showing is as pitiful as Rangel's unbecoming arrogance and hollow pontificating about the committee's failure to give him a fair hearing. Indeed, he was not fairly treated. In a common courtroom, he might have been sentenced to jail. Instead, he is likely to get just a mild reprimand when the Ethics Committee fixes its weak penalty.