Monday, October 12, 2009

Charlie's Falling Angels

Charlie Rangel is a charming, engaging fellow. The kind of man you would enjoy having a beer. Most of the journalists who deal with him in Congress like him because he is forthright even when spinning a topic in his favor. A Korean war hero, Rangel's Harlem voters have elected him to 20 terms, vaunting him to a position of power and by seniority his Democratic comrades have selected him as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the second most powerful job in the House of Representatives. They write out tax codes.

Problem is, Charlie didn't pay his taxes in a timely fashion.

As so happens with many congressman who spend half their lives in the public arena, Rangel is master of his own universe. In his own mind. His personal bookkeeping of his financial affairs is sloppy, at best. His ethics are suspect. His influence of power is feared.

The House Ethics Committee is investigating Rangel's tangled financial affairs and possible violations of House ethics rules. This isn't exactly a Kangaroo Court.

The committee is controlled by the Democrats and three members have received campaign contributions from Rangel. Republicans lost a floor vote to strip Rangel of his chairmanship while the investigation drags on, now more than a year.

Charlie's well protected in this riff. His best buddy is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who promised the most "open government" in history but refuses to demote Rangel from his perch as the guy who controls the government's purse strings.

Pelosi's problem is she doesn't have anyone to replace Rangel unless she drops down the seniority ladder which would ignite a vicious floor fight. Peter Stark, the San Francisco Bay Area congressman whose district snuggles next to Pelosi's, is second in line for the chairmanship. Stark's a maverick she doesn't trust.

With 40 years under his belt in Congress, Rangel is pulling no punches to save his chairmanship, let alone quitting in shame. He claims to have paid back taxes he owes and amended his Congressional financial and ethics statements to reflect their current status.

The advocacy group CREWS says Charlie is the most corrupt member of congress. Here's their account of the charges:

1) Rangel leased four rent-stabilized apartments at Lenox Terrace in New York City, three of which serve as his personal residence and the fourth of which was used as an office for his campaign and political action committees. In total, Rangel paid about $3,800 for the apartments, roughly $7,000 less than new tenants would pay. This means he may have violated New York housing law, the House gifts rule and campaign finance laws.

2) Beginning in 2005, Rangel solicited funds for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York using his official congressional letterhead. House rules prohibit the use of congressional letterhead for any mailing paid for with non-appropriated funds.

3) Rangel owns a beachfront villa on a Dominican Republic resort that rents for between $500 and $1,100 a night during tourist seasons. In total, Charlie failed to disclose $75,000 in rental income since 1988 when he purchased the villa. In 1990 the 10.5% mortgage interest was waived. By failing to include the rental income on his personal financial disclosure forms, Rangel may have violated the Ethics in Government Act and House rules. In addition, if when the interest was waived on his loan for the property Rangel received better terms than others similarly situated, the loan may have violated the House gifts rule. In September 2008, Rangel paid $10,800 in back taxes for his 2004, 2005 and 2006 returns related to the unreported rental income he earned from his Dominican Republic beach house.

4) Rangel helped preserve a tax loophole benefiting Nabors Industries at the same time he was soliciting donations to the Rangel Center from the company’s chief executive. If Rangel accepted a contribution to the Rangel Center in direct exchange for legislative assistance for Nabors Industries, he may have committed bribery, deprived his constituents of his honest services, and accepted an illegal gratuity.

5) Rangel repeatedly failed to disclose all of his assets and unearned income in clear violation of House rules. From 1978-2006, the lawmaker failed to report buying, owning or selling assets 28 times. According to the Sunlight Foundation, “Assets worth between $239,026 and $831,000 appear or disappear with no disclosure of when they were acquired, how long they were held, or when they were sold, as the operative House rules at the time required.” From 2002-2006, Rangel failed to report up to $1.3 million in outside income on his financial disclosure forms. On Aug. 12, 2009, Rangel filed an amendment to his 2007 personal financial disclosure form. The original report failed to disclose between $512,009 and $1.18 million in assets, including a checking account worth at least $250,000. If Rangel knowingly and willfully failed to disclose, or misrepresented, the true value of his personal assets on his financial disclosure forms, he would appear to be in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001.

6) Rangel stored his 1972 Mercedes in a House parking lot for several years. The car was covered by a tarp and did not have license plates. Its registration had expired in 2004 and the car did not display a current House parking permit. The space is valued at $290 per month, and must be reported to the IRS as imputed income. By storing an unlicensed vehicle in a House garage without a valid parking permit, Rangel violated House rules.

Charlie has coughed up $1 million in legal fees to fight the ethics charges.

Calls for his resignation as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee have run the political spectrum from the Daily Kos, Detroit News, the Republican National Committee, CBS's network affiliate Channel 2 in New York City, The New York Daily News and Fox News Politics. Here's a snippet from Channel 2's website:

"Certainly money does make friends and influence people and perhaps make him a little bit more popular and at this particular moment that might help," said pundit Micheline Blum of Baruch College.

"Buying insurance, you know? Don't bite the hand that's feeding you. Clearly he sees himself as having a problem and he is contributing to members who might look favorably," added Doug Muzzio of Baruch.

Seems to me Charlie's dealings are pretty sleazy. Of course, they are only accusations. I'll wait for the Ethics Committee's verdict even though they are under the influence of his power brokerage prowess. To strip him of his chairmanship and then learn he is cleared or softly reprimanded seems too harsh for the 79-year-old grandfather whose only court he's in is in his own house. I would prefer for him to stand for re-election in his district and if he wins, then boot him out of his current chairmanship and reassign him to a lesser committee. That's less sanguine. The case against him is too politically charged and the nation in too much turmoil to change horses in the middle of the race.

As the wise old ballplayer said, "Nice guys finish last." I don't see Charlie falling that far. But he will fall. Even if he wins, his hands are dirty.

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