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Ethics Committee recommends censure for Rangel

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. speaks before the House Ethics Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

The House ethics committee on Thursday recommended censure for longtime Rep. Charles Rangel, suggesting that the New York Democrat suffer the embarrassment of standing before his colleagues while receiving an oral rebuke by the speaker for financial and fundraising misconduct.

Censure is the most serious congressional discipline short of expulsion. The House, which could change the recommended discipline by making it more serious or less serious, probably will consider Rangel’s case after Thanksgiving.

The ethics committee voted 9-1 to recommend censure and that Rangel pay any taxes he owes on income from a vacation villa in the Dominican Republic. The five Democrats and five Republicans on the panel deliberated for about three hours behind closed doors.

In a report, the committee said that censure had been recommended in the past in cases of lawmakers enriching themselves. In Rangel’s case, the committee said, its decision was based on “the cumulative nature of the violations and not any direct personal financial gain.”

Earlier, at a sanctions hearing, the 20-term congressman apologized for his misconduct but said he was not a crooked politician out for personal gain. He was in the House hearing room when the ethics committee chairman, Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, announced the recommendation.

Rangel faced Lofgren after the verdict and said, “I hope you can see your way clear to indicate any action taken by me was not with the intention of bringing any disgrace on the House or enriching myself personally.”

The vote against censure probably came from Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., a former member of his state’s Supreme Court. He said before deliberations that he believed the facts merited a reprimand. A less serious punishment, a reprimand requires a House vote but no oral rebuke.

It’s unclear how much Rangel owes in taxes. An ethics committee document indicated he owed $16,775 as of 1990, but Rangel has paid some of his back taxes.

The ethics committee’s chief counsel, Blake Chisam, had recommended censure for Rangel. The ethics committee could have opted for a lighter punishment, such as a reprimand, a fine or a report deploring the congressman’s behavior. Chisam, responding to questions from committee members, said he personally believed that Rangel’s conduct did not amount to corruption.

Rangel, 80, ended the sanctions hearing with an emotional plea to salvage his reputation. Before speaking, he sat for several minutes trying to compose himself. He placed his hands over his eyes and then his chin before he slowly stood up and said in a gravelly voice that was barely audible, “I don’t know how much longer I have to live.”

Facing the committee members, he asked them to “see your way clear to say, `This member was not corrupt.'”

He continued: “There’s no excuse for my behavior and no intent to go beyond what has been given to me as a salary. I apologize for any embarrassment I’ve caused you individually and collectively as a member of the greatest institution in the world.”

In the most dramatic clash of the proceeding, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, questioned the assertion of Rangel — the former chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee — that he wasn’t corrupt.

“Failure to pay taxes for 17 years. What is that?” McCaul asked, referring to Rangel’s shortchanging the Internal Revenue Service on rental income from his villa in the Dominican Republic.

McCaul also noted the committee’s finding that Rangel solicited donors for the Charles B. Rangel Center at City College of New York from donors who had business before the Ways and Means Committee.

After an investigation that began in summer 2008, Rangel was convicted Tuesday by a jury of his House peers on 11 of 13 charges of rules violations.

He was found to have improperly used official resources — congressional letterheads and staff — to raise funds from businesses and foundations for the Rangel Center. A brochure with some of Rangel’s solicitation letters asked for $30 million, or $6 million a year for five years.

He also was found guilty of filing a decade’s worth of misleading annual financial disclosure forms that failed to list hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets, and failure to pay taxes on his Dominican unit.

Chisam said donations to the Rangel Center were going poorly, then spiked after Rangel rose to the top of the Ways and Means Committee. He noted the center would benefit minority students and asked, “What kind of example is that of what public service ought to be?”

Chisam asked what a neighbor of Rangel would think after she was evicted from her apartment in Harlem’s Lennox Terrace for violating terms of her lease — and then learning Rangel was allowed to convert a residential-only unit into a campaign office. Others were evicted for similar offenses, the committee found.

“How would that influence her faith in government?” Chisam asked.

And Chisam asked how a waitress struggling to pay her taxes on income and tips would feel about Rangel not paying taxes on rental money from his vacation villa.

Rangel brought in Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., to give a testimonial for the congressman. Lewis called his colleague “a good and decent man” and said Rangel had worked tirelessly to advance civil rights.

Before Chisam began his remarks, Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Ala., told committee colleagues that Rangel needed only to “look in the mirror to know who to blame” for his predicament.

The ethics committee’s work didn’t finish with the Rangel case. A hearing is scheduled Nov. 29 to consider charges that Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., improperly used her influence to get federal financial assistance for a bank in which her husband was an investor. Waters has denied the allegations and promised to mount a vigorous defense.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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