Updated: Feb. 25, 10:12 p.m.
House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) acknowledged Thursday the House ethics committee has admonished him for accepting privately funded travel to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008 that apparently violated House rules — but he denied wrongdoing on his part.
The House ethics panel announced Thursday night that five other Members who attended the same trips inadvertently violated House rules, and said all six lawmakers must repay the costs of the trip.
Rangel announced in a Thursday night press conference that the ethics committee is admonishing him for the trips, concluding that the he is responsible for two of his staffers who failed to report that corporate money helped fund them.
"I don't want to be critical of the committee, but common sense dictates that Members of Congress should not be held responsible for what could be the wrongdoing or mistakes or errors of staff unless there's reason to believe that the Member knew or should have known, and there's nothing in the record to indicate the latter," he said.
The ethics committee opened an investigative subcommittee in June 2008 to look into the Caribbean trips — focusing on Rangel and Reps. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Don Payne (D-N.J.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands) — after media reports raised questions about fundraising by the trip's sponsor, the Carib News Foundation, as well as whether private companies sponsoring the 2008 event in St. Maartens, Netherlands Antilles.
According to a statement issued by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics panel is formally called, the ethics committee approved both the 2007 and 2008 trips based on "false and misleading information."
Under House rules, every Member or aide must obtain the ethics committee's consent for privately sponsored travel, including a certification from the sponsor that the trip conforms to the chamber's rules. Members are not allowed to accept multiple-day travel from private entities that employ lobbyists, but they may accept travel from nonprofits that are supported by private companies.
After each trip, Members and aides are also required to submit a form to the ethics committee certifying the travel, accommodations and activities matched those included in their pre-travel filing.
"Although the Committee had approved the Members' travel, that approval was conditional upon the information provided to the Committee being true and correct. That was not the case," the ethics committee statement said. "Since the Members were provided false information by others and relied upon that information in seeking approval to accept the trips, the Committee concludes that the Members committed no wrongdoing."
"Nevertheless, since the Members did, in fact, receive impermissible gifts of travel, they must repay the costs of their trips to the respective entities that paid for their travel. Because some portions of the transportations costs were paid by Carib News out of funds the actual source of which could not be determined, the Committee will require those funds to be paid to the U.S. Treasury."
The ethics committee also ruled that Kilpatrick, Thompson, Payne, Clarke and Christensen "did not knowingly violate any provision of the Code of Official Conduct or any law, rule, regulation or other standard of conduct ... with respect to the acceptance of payment or reimbursement for travel to either or both of the Carib News Foundation Multi-National Business conferences held in 2007 and 2008."
But the ethics committee found that Rangel did violate the House gift rule for accepting payments or reimbursements for those same trips because his aides had knowledge of an improper funding for the trips, although he himself did not.
"The evidence shows that members of Representative Rangel's staff knew that corporations had contributed funds to Carib News specifically for the 2007 and 2008 conferences," the committee wrote. "This information was not provided to the Standards Committee when he sought and received approval from the Committee to accept these trips."
The committee continued: "The Committee does not find sufficient evidence to conclude ... that Representative Rangel had actual knowledge of the memoranda written by this staff. However, the report finds that Representative Rangel was responsible for the knowledge and actions of his staff in the performance of their official duties."
Rangel said Thursday that the ethics committee had approved the trip. "We were approved, the trip was approved. Whether or not it should have been approved is a serious issue," he said. "I'm just saying that the critical part in the report is they're saying that the ethics committee should not have authorized it if they'd known all of the facts."
Rangel said he was unaware that private funds helped pay for the trip when he made it.
"Of course not. It was approved by the ethics committee. I had no idea, hell no," he said.
The ethics committee also admonished one of its own former aides, Dawn Kelly Mobley, who served as counsel to then-Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), for her role in approving the trips.
Mobley "improperly communicated confidential internal Committee information to officers and employees of Carib News, Karl Rodney and Patricia Lewis, and that she improperly influenced the information provided by Karl Rodney and Patricia Lewis to Standards Committee staff during the Committee's review of the 2007 Multi-National Business Conference," the statement read.
The statement does not detail Mobley's actions.
The ethics committee also announced that it referred information related to Rodney, Lewis, and another Carib News Foundation employees, Faye Rodney, to the Justice Department for further review. The committee asserted that the trio submitted "false or misleading information to the Committee during its pre-travel review of the 2007 and 2008 conferences and again when providing sworn testimony to the Investigative Subcommittee."
Rangel also said Thursday that he met with the ethics committee about a month ago to discuss other areas of their investigation into his finances. Asked if the panel had given him a sense of the timing of that report, he said, "They always do but they're never on time."
The ethics committed launched a review in September 2008 to review Rangel's personal finances, including his failure to report rental income from a Dominican beach house.
The ethics panel is examining Rangel's lease of three rent-controlled apartments in his district — the lawmaker earlier gave up a fourth unit that he had used as an office in the same building — and his use of House parking facilities for long-term vehicle storage, which is prohibited.
In addition, the investigation is focused on Rangel's fundraising efforts for a City College of New York facility named in his honor. In December 2008, the ethics panel expanded the investigation to include an alleged quid pro quo — legislative action in exchange for donations to the college. Rangel has denied any wrongdoing in the matter.
The ethics committee expanded its investigation a second time to add Rangel's August 2009 disclosure of more than $500,000 worth of assets that he failed to previously report on his annual personal finance disclosures.
Rangel said he needs to consult with his lawyer about his next move, stating: "And I think right now I have to let the general community make its own judgment based on what the ethics committee has said and then I'll get back to you with a larger statement when I have more information," he said.