Rangel Wants to Keep Gavel

Posted September 10, 2008 at 6:48pm

Embattled Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) acknowledged Wednesday that he owes about $5,000 in back taxes to the federal government and a similar amount in state and city taxes on rental income from a vacation property. But he pushed back against Republican demands he give up his gavel while the ethics committee probes the issue, along with two other matters involving the veteran Harlem legislator.

Rangel, in an hourlong press conference, toggled between contrition and defiance as he said he took full responsibility for what he called an “omission that’s irresponsible,” but he also said, “I personally feel I have done nothing morally wrong.”

Rangel said he felt embarrassed for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who he suggested felt politically compelled to request that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) strip Rangel of his chairmanship.

The New York Democrat has filed a complaint against himself with the ethics committee in the hopes of clearing himself of any wrongdoing in the episode. The move comes shortly after Rangel asked the ethics panel to examine two other headline-making controversies dogging him this summer: his living arrangements and the use of rent-controlled apartments in New York City, and his fundraising efforts for a City College center bearing his name.

Lanny Davis, Rangel’s lawyer, said he was contacted by the ethics committee counsel in August after filing the first two complaints, but the panel has yet to request any documents.

Rangel said he bought the Dominican Republic property — a beach house in the Punta Cana resort — in 1988 after a personal friend invited him to visit the site while he was on a Congressional trip to the island. He made a $30,000 down payment. The rest of the mortgage was covered by $75,000 in rental income that the property generated over the years — the sum Rangel neglected to pay taxes on.

Davis estimated Rangel owes $10,800 in federal, state and local back taxes on the property for 2004-2006. He said Rangel’s accountant is still calculating what the 19-term legislator owes from 2007 and will try to determine his total unpaid burden dating back to 1988 — though Rangel estimated that given depreciation and a foreign tax credit, his liability would be “a wash.” Rangel said he is in the process of filing amended personal financial disclosures and IRS returns.

Rangel said that while he should have understood the property was generating taxable income, “cultural and language barriers” made it difficult for him to communicate with the resort operators and understand how revenue from rentals at the resort was collected and then redistributed to homeowners there. “Every time I thought I was getting through, they started talking Spanish,” he said.

He said that if his moral standing takes a hit from the episode, it will be up to others to decide — specifically, voters in his district. But Rangel said he didn’t think any of the recent controversies amount to a firable offense. “I really don’t believe that making mistakes means you have to give up your career,” he said.

The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington on Tuesday released its fourth annual list of the most corrupt Members of Congress, a roster that for the first time included Rangel. The National Republican Congressional Committee has seized on the controversy to try to paint the majority party as unethical, pounding Democrats who have been on the receiving end of Rangel’s political largess.

Boehner wrote Pelosi a letter on Tuesday demanding she remove Rangel from the helm of the tax-writing committee until the ethics committee wraps up its multifront probe into Rangel’s activities.

But Pelosi’s office rejected the demand out of hand as partisan maneuvering and said that instead, the bipartisan ethics committee should be allowed to conduct its investigation before Congressional leaders take any action.

Republicans in early August sought to censure Rangel over his use of several rent-controlled apartments, but the resolution failed on the floor when more than two-dozen House GOPers defected to back the Democrat.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the Republican leader is still considering whether to bring a new privileged resolution — a move GOP sources have called likely if Rangel doesn’t step aside.

“At this point, we’re still hopeful the Speaker does the right thing,” Steel said.