The Rangel Investigation: We've Only Just Begun

For a moment Thursday, it appeared that the two-year-old saga about the ethics of Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) may finally be over.

“Source says New York Rep. Charlie Rangel will be charged with ethics violations,” wrote the Associated Press in a hastily-composed, 4:05 pm newsflash.

In other words, the Ethics Committee finished with its inquiry. Lawmakers probed. Interviewed. And in the end, found wrongdoing by Rangel.

But to quote the 1970s song by The Carpenters, “We’ve only just begun.”

In fact, an investigative panel of the House Ethics Committee Thursday issued what it termed a “Statement of Alleged Violation,” meaning lawmakers indeed uncovered ethical lapses.

The committee wasn’t specific about where Rangel slipped. But they’ve studied Rangel’s taxes, his use of Congressional stationary to raise money for a school of public affairs in his name, how he’s utilized rent-controlled apartments in Harlem and the improper storage of a broken, unregistered Mercedes-Benz in a House parking garage.

However, the obtuse Ethics Committee statement went on to announce the creation of yet another jury called an “adjudicatory subcommittee.” It will judge “whether any counts in the Statement of Alleged Violation have been proved by clear and convincing evidence and to make findings of fact.”

Translation: the adjudicatory subcommittee will “check the work” of the first subcommittee.

Like we say in the news business mantra, be first. But first, be accurate.

The decision of the Ethics Committee to proceed in this fashion is the Congressional equivalent Russian Matryoshka dolls. A set of Matryoshka dolls increases in size, each fitting just over the other. The same is true here.

Rangel referred himself to the Ethics Committee in the summer of 2008. After an initial inquiry, the Ethics Committee determined by September there was enough evidence to launch a formal probe. So it established an “investigative subcommittee” to study the Rangel further. Then, nearly two years later, that subcommittee determines that Rangel did wrong. But the Ethics Committee then forms an “adjudicatory subcommittee” to judge the findings of the lower panel.

These guys have more subcommittees than Countrywide has sub-prime mortgages.

And, if Rangel is found to be at fault, the history of other Congressional ethics inquires indicates that the adjudicative subcommittee would probably send the Rangel matter to the full Ethics Committee. Which, could then send its finding to the full House to mete out punishment.

But wait. There’s more.

Check out this gem at the end of Thursday’s Ethics Committee statement: “The adjudicatory subcommittee will hold an organizational meeting open to the public on Thursday, July 29, 2010, at 1:00 pm in 1310 Longworth House Office Building.”

“If I can testify, I will,” promised Rangel.

But note that the adjudicatory subcommittee only plans an “organizational meeting.” In other words, it’s just starting from scratch. It needs to figure out its scope in the Rangel matter. Which is to say nothing of pressing tasks like setting up a schedule for who’s supposed to bring coffee and Danish to early morning meetings.

The seating of an adjudicatory subcommittee means the Rangel epic is far from over. If it keeps creating subcommittees, the Ethics Committee is on pace to match the number of Nightmare on Elm Street movies.

In many investigations, the Ethics Committee simply issues a report, admonishing a member or clearing their name. But for Rangel, the decision to hold an open session and anoint an adjudicatory subcommittee is significant. The House has only crept into similar territory twice in the past 13 years.

In 2002, the Ethics Committee held a week of open sessions as it probed former Rep. Jim Traficant (D-OH). The Traficant affair rose to a prominent level because the House was poised to expel him if he didn’t resign. Traficant didn’t quit and the House kicked Traficant out. He served seven years in the federal pen.

A January, 1997 episode evolved into a public spectacle because the Ethics Committee investigated the conduct of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA). The House eventually sanctioned Gingrich with a fine and reprimand for using government resources to help teach a politically-charged college course.

Given the precedent of the Traficant and Gingrich precedent, the fact that Rangel’s case graduated to such a rarefied forum doesn’t bode well for the former Ways and Means Committee Chairman. But Rangel dismissed a suggestion by ABC’s Dean Norland that this was bad news.

“Don’t you say that because you have no idea what is good news or bad news,” Rangel lectured. “I don’t have any fear at all politically or personally (with) what they came up with.”

Eventually, the adjudicatory subcommittee will hold sessions with Rangel and possibly witnesses and then render judgment.

But that will bleed well into September. That raises questions around Rangel’s re-election chances. The Harlem Democrat faces a primary challenge in September from state legislator Adam Clayton Powell IV. Moreover, many Democrats don’t want anything about ethics creeping too close to an election. But that’s what they’ll get with this stage of the process in its infancy.

This is ironic. In fact House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) released this November, 2008 statement about Rangel’s ethics woes.

“I have been assured the report will be completed by the end of this session of Congress, which concludes on January 3, 2009.  I look forward to reviewing the report at that time.”

Thursday’s news about Rangel broke seconds before Pelosi and other Democrats crowded into the Capitol’s Rayburn Room to sign a bill that extends unemployment insurance. The legislation stalled for months in the Senate before Democrats finally broke a mostly-Republican filibuster earlier this week. Pelosi planned a made-for-TV “enrollment” ceremony to christen the bill, a hallmark of Democratic efforts to contrast themselves with the GOP.

TV crews positioned their cameras at the rear of the room for the ceremony. But after a few seconds, no reporter was interested in what the speaker was doing. That’s because Rangel joined the throng lawmakers up front and huddled next to Pelosi.

“This is going to be a very brief press conference because we don’t want any more time to go by before we can send this legislation to help American workers, to the President of the United States for his signature,” Pelosi said.

All the better for reporters. The nanosecond Pelosi finished, the TV crews yanked the cameras off their tripods and rushed Rangel.

The timing couldn’t have been worse for the Democrats.

The juxtaposition of Rangel’s problems hijacking attention from Pelosi’s hard-fought legislative victory could be a harbinger of how a prolonged, public ethics inquiry could tarnish other Democrats this fall. In fact, Rangel upbraided MSNBC’s Luke Russert when asked if the ethics scandal could cost him his job.

“You know it’s a dumb question,” snarled Rangel at Russert, accusing the reporter of “trying to make copy.”

Of course, a protracted Rangel ethics probe could cost other Democrats their jobs. That would make copy.

And, two years into Rangel’s ethics debacle, we’ve only just begun.