The Hitchhiker's Guide to Understanding Today's Ethics Committee Action Involving Charlie Rangel

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Let me try to explain in English what the Ethics Committee did today, what the consequences could be for Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., and give some historical context on this.

Key point: The ethics subcommittee investigating Rangel is accusing him of wrongdoing and wants to kick it to a special Adjudicative Subcommittee which could penalize him or ask the entire House to do so.

The Ethics Committee has been investigating Rangel since he took the extraordinary step of referring himself to the Ethics Committee in the summer of 2008. In fact, Rangel did a rare, on-camera interview with me the day he sent the ethics complaints to the panel, telling me he was “clean as the driven snow.”

In September of 2008, the Ethics Committee determined there was merit to the charges and took up a formal case against Rangel.

In short, after a two-year probe, the special investigative subcommittee studying Rangel has created a “Statement of Alleged Violation and Related Motions.”

What that means is the committee BELIEVES it has found ethical lapses by Rangel. But the committee, like all committees in Congress, must approve the report it has written.

It will not sign off on that. Yet. So, what happens, is the full panel has created a unique “Adjudicatory Subcommittee” which will convene an extremely rare, open session. The committee could debate and determine if the findings are accurate and factual on July 29 at 1:00 pm ET in 1310 Longworth.

The committee COULD also give Rangel himself the chance to defend himself, amplify and answer charges.

At that point, the Adjudicatory Subcommittee COULD then vote on whether to sanction Rangel. Remember, there are multiple alleged ethics lapses involving Rangel, ranging from a failure to pay taxes to improperly storing a broken-down, unregistered Mercedes Benz in the Rayburn Garage. Again, they COULD find that Rangel did wrong in some areas and clear him in others.

But the issue may not be done there.

In January, 1997, the full-House was asked to penalize then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) for his book deal. It is entirely possible that the Adjudicatory Subcommittee could finish its action then. But we are in unchartered water here. So it’s unclear whether the Adjudicatory Subcommittee’s decision will be final or if this could be referred with a recommendation to the entire House.

Furthermore, I direct you to a cryptic line in the Ethics Committee Statement. The final line says that the July 29 meeting is “organizational meeting.” That implies that there could be other meetings and that next week’s session is just the start. Moreover, it also implies that not all such sessions would necessarily be open.


Bottom line: the investigative subcommittee probing Rangel has found something and believes there is enough “there, there.”

On-camera today, Rangel denied that the committee’s conclusion of its investigation and call for a hearing meant “bad news” for him.

Rangel: “Don’t you say that because you have no idea. Because you have no idea what is good news or bad news. I feel extraordinary. I don’t have any fear at all politically or personally what they came up with. So this is it And is what I’ve been waiting for. We’ll see what happens.”

It's important to note that the House formally recognizes three “official” forms of punishment for members who are found to have violated House Rules. Those forms of punishment are expulsion, centure or reprimand.

HOWEVER...It is rare that ANY of those sanctions are ever used to punish a member.

For instance, the House PROBABLY would have expelled Jim Traficant. But he resigned. Same with Mark Foley.

More often, lawmakers are sent a letter of admonition or fined. Conceivably, they could make a member “stand in the corner” or “send them to bed without supper.”

In other words, there is no defined punishment that MUST be meted out if Rangel is found to have done wrong. And frequently, Congress chooses an alternative route to discipline its members.

A few things to point out: when Rangel first referred himself to the Ethics Committee, there were three issues:

1) His use of rent-controlled apartments for political use in Harlem.

2) Failure to report rental income for tax purposes on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic.

3) His use of Congressional stationary to help solicit funds for a School of Public Affairs named after him (which he did not ask for) at City College of New York.

A fourth and fifth issue was added later.

First, it was discovered that Rangel was violating House rules by storing his unregistered, broken-down Mercedes-Benz in the Rayburn Garage. That was towed from the garage in September, 2008.

The fifth issue evolved a few months later about his travel to the Caribbean that was paid for by an outside group.

In late February of this year, the Ethics Committee formally admonished Rangel for allowing a private corporation to pay for trips he and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) took to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008.

A furor then bubbled up around Rangel as some called for him to step down as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. After a late-night conclave in early March with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Rangel denied media reports Tuesday that he would step down as the head of the powerful tax writing committee. A defiant Rangel emerged from a half-hour meeting with Pelosi. When asked by reporters if he was still the chairman of the panel, Rangel gave an unequivocal “yes!” When further queried if he would still be the chair of the committee on Wednesday, Rangel responded, “well, I’m 79-years-old. I can’t make promises at my age.”A scrum of reporters continued pressing Rangel as he left the meeting and made his way toward a Capitol elevator. “You bet your life on it,” Rangel said when asked again if he would remain the head of the panel. “And I don’t lie to the press.”

The next morning, Rangel stepped aside as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Important points…

In late November, 2008, Pelosi put out a statement asserting that she was confident the Ethics Committee would complete its work by early January, 2009. That didn’t happen.

Moreover, there is some precedent for having a larger, open panel (such as the Adjudicative Subcommittee) probe a high-profile Ethics case.

In January of 1997, the Ethics Committee met late on a Friday night in open session to debate and vote on whether then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., violated House rules by misusing tax-exempt fund to teach a politically-charged college course.

The House empanelled Special Counsel James Cole to investigate Gingrich and potentially bring a case against him. Cole found fault with Gingrich. Gingrich agreed to pay the House $300,000 and be formally reprimanded by the House.

The Ethics Committee then passed its decision along to the full House. The House voted 395 to 28 to penalize Gingrich.