It’s all my fault.
If Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) has problems with the House Ethics Committee, he can blame me.
I bear some responsibility. I helped get him into the mess in first place.
It was July, 2008. And the New York press corps was frothing with blockbuster stories that alleged Rangel failed to pay taxes on his vacation villa in the Dominican Republic. And that he misappropriated Congressional letterhead to solicit donations for a school of public service in his name at City College of New York. And that Rangel used four, rent-controlled apartment in Harlem for political purposes.
Rangel said he would pay the back taxes owed on the Caribbean vacation home and straighten out his House financial disclosure reports. And Rangel said he could explain the problem with the Congressional stationary. Plus, he argued he was on the right side of the law with the Manhattan apartments.
But the story churned. It soon brewed into a political maelstrom. And after weeks of charges and sparring with reporters, Rangel had had enough.
If people wanted to investigate him so badly, so be it. Rangel would let them take their best shot. And he would take the extraordinary step of referring himself to the House Ethics Committee to sort this all out.
So on July 31, 2008, I asked Rangel why anyone would throw himself at the mercy of House ethics investigators.
His response was brazen. Cocky. Boastful.
“When you’re as clean as the driven snow, no matter the accusations, just denying is not enough,” Rangel answered.
The retort shocked me. Politicians usually answer in bland generalities. But this was emphatic. Declarative. And I’ve also been around long enough to know when someone is tempting fate.
In other words, in Rangel’s mind, all of this was just a misunderstanding. The Ethics Committee would see this Rangel’s way. And then he could emerge from this nebula that clouded his Congressional career.
Some days earlier, news stories percolated about Rangel’s decision to throw himself at the mercy of the Ethics Committee. It was just a question of when Rangel would correspond with the Ethics Committee, begging for scrutiny.
This is where I come in.
On the morning of July 23, 2008, I entered the U.S. Capitol the way I usually do. I approach the building from the National Mall and strode through the center door on the Capitol’s East Front. It’s the same door used by presidents-elect as they walk out for their inauguration ceremony. Once in the Capitol and past security, I make a hard right and walk directly past an obscure, non-descript door in the basement of the Capitol. Behind that door is the office suite of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Or in the vernacular of Capitol Hill, the Ethics Committee.
Passing by the Ethics Committee reminded me that morning to call with Rangel’s office. For several days, I hadn’t heard as to whether the Congressman had made the self-referral. So I figured I’d would walk upstairs to my office, fire up the computer and make a few calls to check on the status of Rangel’s decision.
And a few minutes later is when I ran into Emile Milne, longtime aide to Rangel. Milne carried with him an overstuffed, legal-sized envelope. And he looked a little confused.
I wouldn’t have to call Rangel’s office after all. Rangel’s office had come to me. And I asked Milne about when Rangel would make his self-referral to the Ethics Committee.
Milne waved the big envelope at me. In fact that was the referral itself. And he admitted to being a bit lost, wandering the labyrinths of the Capitol basement. Milne said he was trying to locate the Ethics Committee so he could drop off Rangel’s paperwork.
I’ve toiled the corridors of Capitol Hill long enough to have pretty good Congressional GPS. So I naturally offered to walk Milne over to the Ethics Committee. After all, I just came by there and knew the way.
Months later, I told Rangel about escorting his aide to the Ethics Committee with the referral.
“Don’t you ever say that FOX didn’t do you any favors,” I joked as we chatted one day off the House floor. Rangel grinned broadly and erupted in a belly laugh.
Now the Ethics Committee is lowing the boom on Rangel. A special panel found Rangel guilty on 11 counts of violating House rules. The full Ethics Committee could recommend a punishment for Rangel on Thursday.
And all because I tried to be a good Samaritan and guided Milne to the Ethics Committee offices more than two years ago. Had I not bothered, maybe Milne would still be meandering through the Capitol basement and the Ethics Committee would have never taken up the case against Rangel.
After the “guilty” verdict from the Ethics panel Tuesday, I tracked down Rangel late in the afternoon for an interview. I asked him if he regretted referring himself to the Ethics Committee.
“No, of course not,” Rangel said. “There was no self-dealing. There was no corruption.”
And moreover, Rangel had his own theory as to why the Ethics Committee nailed him now.
“There’s only one reason for it,” Rangel said. “They want to complete this before they go on vacation. Before they do Thanksgiving. Before they do Christmas. In other words, due process has been shattered in order for them to complete the work this year.
Rangel has reflexively used the calendar to his advantage during this saga. During a remarkable floor speech in August, Rangel pleaded for the House Ethics Committee to “expedite” his trial.
“Don't leave me swinging in the wind until November,” he implored. “I am not going away. I am here!”
Then, when the ethics trial started, Rangel accused the panel of rushing.
In short, two years ago, Rangel believed the Ethics Committee would vindicate him. Now he believes the Ethics Committee buried him. Just so its members could get home for the holidays and devour some turkey and stuffing.
Furthermore, Rangel felt ethics investigators pulled a fast one on them by scheduling his hearing when he didn’t have legal counsel.
“How would anyone feel if someone told them that they have been waiting for two years and they tell you before the date is set when they know that counsel has removed themselves, they’ve got an 80-page new procedure that has never been used by the Ethics Committee,” Rangel charged during our Tuesday interview. “How I don’t know of any administrative, civil or criminal court in saying that we would have to proceed now because we don’t have time to get a lawyer. I don’t think that sounds fair.”
So the Ethics Committee was going to be Rangel’s savior. Now it’s his enemy.
Rangel’s periodically used the press as a whipping boy too over the years.
Rangel famously tangled with Washington Post reporter Chris Lee at a 2008 press conference when questioned about the violations. And Rangel got his dander up with MSNBC’s Luke Russert when asked whether the ethics questions could cost him his job.
“What are you talking about?” Rangel responded indignantly. “You just trying to make copy?”
Rangel also decried Russert’s query to be a “dumb question.”
And if Rangel’s target wasn’t the Ethics Committee, or the press, it was the Republicans. Whom he basically accused of getting him into this whole mess in the first place.
In one of my July, 2008 interviews with Rangel, the New York Democrat argued that Republicans were coming after him because so many of their own had suffered ethics problems, ranging from former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) to the late-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK).
“When you're in the minority and it’s frustrating and you have so many of your people indicted, I guess you try to bring in something in order to cloud the issue. But Sen. Stevens is under a seven count indictment. And I guess that's a heavy blow to Republicans.”
Rangel added at the time that he was “a little annoyed” at GOP efforts to tarnish him.
“Never in my public history has my integrity been attacked by anybody. It was like a pile on,” Rangel said.
And even fellow Democrats found themselves in Rangel’s crosshairs over the summer when some lawmakers whispered that it would make their re-election efforts easier if the Congressman were to resign.
“Fire your best shot at getting rid of me through expulsion,” Rangel thundered. “You’re not going to tell me to resign to make you feel comfortable.”
Rangel’s challenged a lot of people and groups since this scandal erupted. The Ethics Committee. Journalists. Republicans. Democrats.
But he hasn’t taken on himself. And that may have compelled Rangel to declare himself as “clean as the driven snow” during our interview two years ago.
And everyone knows what’s a side effect of driven snow: blinding conditions that diminish visibility.