Home Inspection

Posted July 15, 2008 at 4:11pm

Ordinarily, we’d support continuing the House and Senate ethics rules exempting lawmakers from having to list details of their primary residences on financial disclosure forms. We assume that the exemption was designed to offer Members a zone of privacy.

Alas, enough cases have arisen of apparent misbehavior connected to primary residences that we believe full disclosure of ownership, financing and rental arrangements is necessary. A disclosure requirement might well deter conduct that otherwise would render a Member subject to bad publicity or ethics complaints.

The latest disclosure, by the New York Times on Sunday, concerns House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) rental of (count ’em) four rent-stabilized luxury apartments in a development described as “Harlem’s most prestigious address.”

It’s a matter between Rangel and his constituents, as well as Rangel and New York City housing authorities, whether he should be occupying four rent-controlled apartments — or even one — at a time when less-well-connected occupants are being forced out of such accommodations and when state and city regulations forbid use of rent-controlled apartments as offices, as Rangel did with one of the units.

What’s relevant for Congress is the possibility that Rangel’s below-cost rent — $3,894 a month in 2007, when the going rate would be from $7,465 to $8,125 — constitutes a gift from his landlord, the Olnick Organization, which has been accused of overzealous tactics in evicting other tenants from rent-stabilized apartments.

If the House had a working ethics committee, or if its newly authorized Office of Congressional Ethics were operating, Rangel also ought to be the subject of an inquiry over his use of Congressional stationery to raise money for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York — a clear violation of House rules uncovered by the Washington Post.

Less clear is whether any rules were violated as Rangel sought funds from firms and foundations with business before his committee. The Post evidently was leaked a list of donors to the Rangel Center. We believe that donor lists to presidential libraries ought to be public — and so should donors to entities named for Members of Congress.

Besides Rangel, questions have been raised about the living and home financing arrangements of Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). Coleman, the National Journal discovered, has been renting a Capitol Hill apartment from a Minnesota political supporter who sometimes doesn’t cash his rental check.

Dodd and Conrad, as Portfolio magazine first disclosed, got special-rate “VIP” mortgages from Countrywide Financial. All three Senators have denied any wrongdoing, and it’s not certain that there was any. The Senate Ethics Committee ought to be looking into the arrangements, but they might never have taken place had the Senators — also Rangel — had to disclose their living arrangements. Alas, again, there is no interest in either the House or Senate in changing the rules this year. There’s always next year.