In Defense of Charles Rangel

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Getty Images
    U.S. Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) speaks during a rally for the unemployed in downtown Manhattan September 1, 2010 in New York City. Rangel and other speakers called for increased funding for American jobs programs and mustered support for a march on Washington in October.

    For 34 years Robert Morgenthau was district attorney of Manhattan. He became an icon in New York history.

    And now the former DA says that Congressman Charles Rangel is “being railroaded” by the House ethics committee. That should make even those calling for Rangel’s scalp to consider what he did and what they threaten to do to him. Morgenthau is not exactly a lightweight when it comes to prosecuting someone. And he feels the committee committed a foul.

    The committee has found that Rangel violated House ethics rules. There’s no argument about that. The Harlem congressman admits he violated the rules. But he says that his sins could be blamed on sloppy bookkeeping on his part.

    And the fact is that the counsel to the ethics committee himself, who acted as prosecutor in this weird case, said that Rangel was not corrupt and had not personally enriched himself.  Indeed the counsel/prosecutor said that and so did the chairwoman of the committee.

    So what exactly did this man do? He failed to report income from a condominium he owned in the Dominican Republic. But he thought it didn’t have to be reported because it was being rolled into the money he owed on the mortgage he took out there.

    In view of the fact that the very people who prosecuted him admit he wasn’t a crook and that his major sin was sloppiness -- not a willful violation of the law -- it seems unfair that he has received the most severe punishment handed out by the House in 27 years.

    Lanny Davis, a Washington lawyer, has been appointed to major positions by both President Clinton and President George Bush. He has represented Rangel in the past.

    Davis says that Rangel, for 20 years, thought that the income from his Dominican property was being used to reduce his mortgage principal. The lawyer says Rangel made an “honest mistake,” in not reporting a tax liability of less than $10,000. 

    Whether or not that is true, it is clear that the Democrats on the ethics committee are in a hurry to wrap this case up before they lose control of the House in January. The hidden element in this case is that the Democrats want to show that they can be as tough as the Republicans who defeated them in the election.

    Asked if he had anything to say, Rangel said: “I am sorry for any embarrassment I might have caused. There’s no excuse for my behavior but there was no attempt to go beyond what was given to me as a salary. I had no intention to enrich myself.”  

    There has been a kind of lynch mob out there demanding Rangel’s conviction and punishment. Editorial writers, columnists, broadcast pundits have joined in the outcry.

    Davis says that no one says “Rangel was personally enriched” by any of the rules violations. “Indeed,” says Davis, “the fact that Rangel is so indigent that he cannot afford to pay for a lawyer to defend him before the ethics committee says it all.

    “So please, everyone, whatever sanctions the ethics committee decides are appropriate…let’s stick to the facts about Rangel. He made honest mistakes. Yes, he was careless. No, he shouldn’t have been if he were perfect. But, he did not personally enrich himself. Those are the facts.”

    If Bob Morgenthau, who prosecuted some of the worst criminals in the last four decades here, says that Rangel is being “railroaded,” we should listen. He knows the score. When he comes before the full House, Charles Rangel does not deserve the extreme sanction of censure.  Honoring his many selfless acts and his record of helping his community and others, he should be treated with compassion.