Americans are not shocked when politicians get in trouble for breaking the law. In fact we almost expect it, laugh about it and only get concerned when those violations are so egregious that they can’t be chalked up to usual levels of greed. When former Congressman William Jefferson was caught hiding over $80,000 in bribe money in a freezer back in 2009, nobody can find a way to explain that one. When Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson and his wife were caught trying to hide almost $80K in her bra and flush checks down the toilet — that wasn’t a good look either. But when we have such obvious cases of public graft and corruption, it makes the Rangel case even harder to understand.
Charlie Rangel was convicted last week by the House Ethics Committee of 11 ethics charges. Rangel, who was once head of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, is an old dog in the House of Representatives and pulls more weight than an F-150 truck with fresh tires. He’s been representing the 15th district in New York City since 1971 and thus has seen corruption scandals come and go in his time and has always come out of things with his nose clean. At least until now. The strange thing is that there are conflicting reports about the crimes that Rangel has committed during his time in office and while many of them clearly smell questionable do they rise to the level of punishment that he is likely to receive very soon on the House floor?
Of the 11 ethics violations, the most sensational have to do with apartments, letterhead and nepotism. For years Rangel has rented four apartments in new York for vastly less than their market value, with estimates that he is paying anywhere from $20K to $30K less a year than the market rate for those homes. He’s been using a storage space in the House of Representatives parking lot to store his Mercedes Benz without paying for it, and has supposedly used Congressional letterhead to solicit funds for private foundations, his policy center at City College in New York and other legacy-enhancing pursuits. Likely his most inexcusable crime is paying his son’s Internet company $80,000 to produce two PAC websites that were clearly thrown together just to cover up the transfer or money. The sites had spelling errors and were estimated to demonstrate about $100.00 in actual work. So this should be an open and shut case right? Wrong.
The lead attorney for the House Ethics Committee said during hearings last week that “I see no evidence of corruption.” In fact he went further to say that while Rangel was clearly sloppy and should’ve been more careful he couldn’t really find any evidence that the Congressman had directly profited from any of his actions. Now off the bat I can say that saving $30K a year on apartments is profiting personally, but I think it is telling that the man responsible for leading the charge on a committee that is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans couldn’t find anything worth really investigating. What is even more curious is that same prosecutor two days later suggested to the committee that Rangel be censured by the House of Representatives one of the harshest penalties that a sitting official can be hit with. It amounts to having to stand in front of your peers, TV cameras, God and everybody while all of your crimes are read to the public. It’s certainly better than losing your job, but 11 counts of malfeasance rubbed in your face isn’t a fun way to spend the afternoon either.
I think the lesson here however is this: Clearly we are seeing the beginning of a purge in Congress. After the 2010 midterms, African-Americans in the House are losing committee seats and chairmanships right and left. Powerful members of the old guard like Rangel and soon-to-be-tried Maxine Waters are being put out to pasture or at least reigned in before the Republicans can truly run roughshod over the place for the next two years. While Charlie clearly did some either “sloppy” or “greedy” things the fact remains that the committee has only seen fit to make him pay back $17K in restitution. If that’s all you owe after 11 counts of ethics violations either you’re the dumbest corrupt politician in America or your trial was about something else other than your supposed ‘crimes.’ I’ll take a rent cheat over $79,000 in a WonderBra any day.