Charles Rangel Careens toward House Trial; Democrats Keen to Avoid It

Article excerpt

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.

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."

Barring a last-minute deal, here's how events will play out. …