Even though a four-member House Ethics Committee has been largely silent about the charges facing longtime Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel, at least some of the allegations are reportedly among the committee’s most serious infractions. And, no matter what the Rangel saga could mean for Democrats come November, the public circus around his trial could have far reaching implications on elected black leadership nationwide.
The Ethics Committee is set to air the full charges against Rangel tomorrow, and some party leaders have urged him to cut a deal to avoid that potentially ugly moment. He has thus far refused.
Rangel has reportedly already spent $1.7 million on a legal defense team over the course of the 18 month investigation. The charges against him range from misuse of rent-controlled apartments in New York City and failure to disclose income from a villa in the Dominican Republic to reports that he exchanged official favors with an oil company in exchange for a $1 million gift to a City University of New York center that’s named after him.
Rangel has not only vehemently denied the charges, he’s done so with a unique brand of braggadocio—much to the chagrin of some fellow Democrats and even a former aide. What fuels the congressman’s confidence may be exactly what makes his ordeal potentially devastating to other black elected officials: he’s a co-founder and current dean of the Congressional Black Caucus and, until news of the ethnics investigation hit in March, led the all-important Ways and Means Committee. Any particularly egregious fallout could prove harmful to the CBC which, despite some missteps, has been key in pushing jobs and unemployment insurance legislation in recent months.
But that also begs the question of whether the CBC and other black elected officials will stand by Rangel rather than urge he be held accountable should he be found guilty of the charges. CBC Chair Barbara Lee has recently urged members of both parties to avoid presuming Rangel’s guilt.
“Any rush to judgment to short-circuit the ongoing review of Congressman Rangel by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct will do a disservice to the well-established processes of the House of Representatives, ” Lee wrote in a statement. “Attempts by Republicans and Democrats to presume guilt before the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct completes its review of the facts, which are only known to them and Congressman Rangel, violates the core American principle of the presumption of innocence.”
Another CBC member Rep. Chaka Fattah pointed to the Shirley Sherrod scandal as evidence of what happens when both parties jump the gun.
“The railroading of Shirley Sherrod at USDA should be a lesson learned about hasty judgment… . That lesson must be applied to current case of Congressman Charlie Rangel,” she told the AP last week.
Still, Rangel’s widely popular in his district, and as the fourth eldest serving member of Congress, his political track record speaks for itself. It’s unlikely that he’ll be ousted from his seat, but Politico wonders how much he has to lose if he continues to stand his ground.
The bigger question is how, and when, do we hold our elected officials of color accountable? So far, no member of the CBC has spoken publicly about what the Rangel investigation could mean to the Ways and Means Committee’s work, or what it says about his relationship with his Harlem constituency.
Photo: U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) (L) faces questions from the news media after a House investigative committee found substatinial reason to believe Rangel has violated rules and laws at the U.S. Capitol July 22, 2010. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)