Capitol victimology

Posted on November 21, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Charlie Rangel continues to be one of the best arguments for term limits.

How else to explain his political descent except to say that he’s lost touch, perspective, maybe even his marbles?

On Tuesday, a congressional subcommittee found the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a 40-year House veteran from New York, guilty of all but one of 13 counts of ethics violations.

The full House Ethics Committee was scheduled to recommend punishment on Thursday but had not voted as of my press time. The full House will vote on any recommendation. Nobody is expecting anything close to expulsion, however. More likely Rangel will get only a formal reprimand or censure.

But the main story isn’t what the House will do, it’s what Rangel has done, particularly in his handling of the accusations. He’s become the victim. Instead of a mantle of dignity becoming a longtime lawmaker, he has donned the cloak of injustice: He says he’s been treated unfairly.

By whom? Take your pick: First it was Republicans, then it was the press, then some turncoat Democrats; finally, it was the ethics panel itself.

A word to the wise for ethics violators: Don’t toss the word “fair” about too loosely.

It’s worth remembering that Ways and Means does most of the tax-writing work in the House, so all those pesky, cumbersome, inane and often unfair tax rules? They’re hatched in the committee that Rangel headed until this past March. When the guy who used to be in charge starts ignoring those rules and arguing that sloppiness is an acceptable excuse, it’s hard to feel much sympathy.

Arrogance is annoying enough when someone’s right, but it’s downright aggravating when he’s wrong, and there’s simply no other word for the things Rangel did.

It was wrong to leave some $600,000 worth of assets off his disclosure forms; that’s precisely the opposite of disclosure. It was wrong to use a rent-controlled apartment in New York as a political action campaign office; those apartments are strictly residential. It was wrong to lease out his villa in the Dominican Republic and not report the proceeds as income. And it was wrong to use official congressional letterhead in direct violation of House rules to solicit funds for a namesake school center.

Reading through the details of the 40-page “Statement of Alleged Violation” is pretty eye-opening. The first item addresses the solicitation of donors to create his legacy center at the City College of New York. There are 92 individual statements of fact in support of the allegation, including numerous instances of using congressional letterhead, congressional staffers during work hours, and franking privileges to solicit donations of as much as $30 million.

The wording of the House rules involving letterhead and staffers is unwavering: It’s a chorus of “no’s” — no use of official letterhead for fund raising, no franking for charitable or other causes, no use of House staff or property for soliciting contributions.

In some documented instances, Rangel was even soliciting fellow trustees on charitable boards for which he had signed prohibition agreements against self-dealing. In others, he was sending requests to executives of organizations with business pending before the Ways and Means Committee on official House stationery.

Vision is one of the first things to go in old age, and for his supporters that might justify the 80-year-old lawmaker’s blurry view of the ethics lines. It hardly explains his vacillating excuses and arguments.

Taking a personal moment back in August during an emergency economic session, Rangel lectured the chamber for a half-hour about his own issues. He told his colleagues he might have been stupid and negligent, but never corrupt.

The “I never knew” angle is a common rejoinder, though not a legal protection, from those accused of tax improprieties, but we’re supposed to believe that one of the most powerful lawmakers in the country, with specific assignment over congressional tax writing and appropriations, really had no idea that he might benefit from 10 years’ worth of inaccurate tax returns or quid pro quo deals for his personal project? Please.

In that same August speech, Rangel chided the ethics subcommittee to expedite his case.

“Don’t leave me swinging in the wind until November,” he said.

Then after lawyering up to the tune of $2 million (paid by campaign funds, of course), Rangel’s argument now is that the ethics panel rushed his hearing. Due process had been “shattered,” he said in a news interview, so the committee could finish before Thanksgiving.

Finally, in a pitiful personification of the proverbial man who killed his parents and then begged for mercy because he was an orphan, Rangel walked out of his hearing, then condemned the panel for convicting him while he was absent.

If he’s a victim of anything other than hubris, it’s too many years in office.

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