Time Is of the Essence for Rangel

Posted July 27, 2010 at 6:54pm

The clock is ticking on Rep. Charlie Rangel’s attempt to end what he describes as a “nightmare” of an ethics case against him before the allegations are unveiled in full on Thursday.

“This has all been a nightmare,” the New York Democrat said Tuesday evening. “I have always wanted this … to be resolved,” he said, adding later that he would like to avoid a public trial before his peers that will take place if no settlement on his punishment occurs before then.

“People are trying to avoid the spectacle of a hearing, and to me that makes sense,” Rangel said.

Rangel spoke as his lawyers and ethics committee staff try to hash out a deal behind the scenes that would avert a full-blown ethics trial in the weeks before the midterm elections.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct announced last week that one of its investigative subcommittees had found substantial reason to believe that Rangel broke House rules. The announcement followed a nearly two-year probe into allegations involving Rangel’s personal finances, fundraising efforts and other issues that has already cost him $2 million in legal fees.

A special adjudicatory panel made up of Rangel’s Congressional colleagues is set to organize Thursday and is expected to review the matter in a proceeding similar to a trial in September.

Rangel emphasized Tuesday that his lawyers are handling the matter and he has not yet been directly involved. “I don’t have information and I have not talked with members of the ethics committee,” he said. “It’s my understanding my lawyers met with them” Monday night.

And he said he could not address what a settlement might look like. “I don’t know what my options are,” Rangel said. “I wish this thing never happened. I wish there was no Thursday. But the situation being what it is, it’s one step at a time. So, compared to being lynched, I’d rather go through Thursday.”

Rangel added that if the ethics trial takes place, he will be heavily involved in his defense.

“If there’s alleged violations against me, Rangel will be heard,” he said.

And while the scandal is clearly taking its toll on the veteran New York lawmaker, it is also becoming a major headache for House Democratic leaders. Democrats are hoping to avoid a protracted ethics mess heading into the November elections, as well as the potential for a nasty, racially tinged intraparty fight between moderate white members of their Caucus who want Rangel gone and the Congressional Black Caucus, which is insisting he be given a fair hearing.

Already two Democrats — Reps. Walt Minnick (Idaho) and Betty Sutton (Ohio) — have called on Rangel to resign, and others have donated Rangel campaign cash to charity to avoid ethics taint. Minnick, in an interview with the Idaho Reporter, said Rangel should resign “provided the facts are as alleged.”

In the meantime, ethics Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren denied reports Tuesday that she or the panel’s Democratic staff have held private negotiations with Rangel over a potential settlement.

The California Democrat said, however, that “lawyer to lawyer” discussions between the committee’s professional staff and Rangel’s attorneys are likely ongoing, given historical precedent. Lofgren noted her own service on the investigative subcommittee that probed allegations involving then-Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) for four years.

“At the end, the lawyers worked out a plea with Mr. Shuster, for lack of a better word, and he was chastised,” Lofgren recalled. She added with a chuckle: “And then he went to the floor and complained about it.”

The ethics committee slapped Shuster with a “letter of reproval,” the lowest form of official punishment, in October 2000, declaring that he “brought discredit to the House” for five violations related to interactions with a lobbyist who was formerly his chief of staff. Shuster resigned in February 2001.

But even if Rangel and the committee’s attorneys reach an agreement on a punishment before Thursday, the adjudicatory panel, which is led by Lofgren and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), will still have to meet to approve it.

That panel is expected to release a report detailing Rangel’s alleged wrongdoing. Lofgren said that any settlement would reference the charges in that document.

“Because there is a [statement of alleged violations], that has been voted out of the subcommittee. … If there were an agreement it would be agreeing to some things in the SAV and not others,” Lofgren said.

Lofgren said she did not expect any votes Thursday, noting the session is an organizational meeting. She said an ethics trial will likely begin in September if no agreement is made but would not speculate on how long it would last. Lofgren said the length of the trial would depend on the number of witnesses called by both sides as well as the evidence introduced by each side.

Any recommended sanctions would then go to the full ethics committee, and depending on their severity, to the full House for a vote.

The ethics chairwoman also said she had not spoken to Rangel since Thursday, when her panel announced that its investigative subcommittee had voted to move to a trial.

She also rebutted reports that she fought with Rangel on the House floor that day: “We didn’t have an argument,” Lofgren said. “I said, ‘I have this letter I have to give you.'”

Democratic and Republican leaders continued to spar over the electoral implications of the Rangel case.

[IMGCAP(1)]House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the upcoming trial proves that Democrats failed to “drain the swamp” as they promised to when they won back the majority in 2006. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) argued that the investigation showed that the ethics process is working again.

“This isn’t really about Charlie Rangel,” Boehner said. “This is a sad day when the U.S. House of Representatives has to sit in trial of one of its own Members. It is one of the biggest broken promises” of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), “who promised to drain the swamp.”

“The fact is the swamp has not been drained. The ethics committee is overwhelmed with the number of transgressions that are there,” he said.

Boehner used the situation to make a case for Republican victory this fall, promising to make the ethics process work if he becomes Speaker.

Hoyer, however, argued that when Republicans were in charge they did not vigorously pursue ethics cases. A series of ethical troubles led up to the GOP’s 2006 defeat, including the case of former Rep. Mark Foley (Fla.), who exchanged racy messages with House pages while he was in office.

“The Foley matter was ignored for years,” Hoyer said.

Hoyer defended Rangel’s right to pursue a trial before his colleagues.

“We’ll see what Mr. Rangel decides to do,” Hoyer said at his weekly pen-and-pad press conference Tuesday, adding later that he should do what he believes is “appropriate and proper.”

He noted that Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) resigned earlier this year rather than go through the ethics process. “We have made the ethics process work, and we have made it work in a meaningful way,” Hoyer said.

Still, Hoyer acknowledged that the process has been awkward for Members.

“I think everyone would like to have it go away in the sense that this is not a pleasant process. … But it is an important process.”

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.