The House ethics committee's decision to admonish New York Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel over improper corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean leaves both Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the ethics committee itself facing some difficult questions.
When then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was admonished by the ethics committee in October 2004, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders went on the offensive against him.
“Mr. DeLay has proven himself to be ethically unfit to lead the party,” Pelosi said at a press conference the following day. “The burden falls upon his fellow House Republicans. Republicans must answer: Do they want an ethically unfit person to be their majority leader or do they want to remove the ethical cloud that hangs over the Capitol?”
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — now the House majority leader — said DeLay "certainly ought to step aside as leader at this point in time because I think his credibility has been undermined by these findings."
Six years later, the shoe is on the other foot: Republicans have previously called for Rangel to lose his chairmanship over his ethical troubles, and some of them — including Indiana Rep. Mike Pence — renewed that call Thursday night.
How will Pelosi and Hoyer respond?
Neither had anything to say about Rangel's future Thursday night, but the issue is certain to be a central topic for Democratic leadership in the days ahead.
The ethics committee's decision on Rangel's trips resolves just a small part of the ethical controversy in which he's caught up. The ethics committee is still investigating a variety of issues related to Rangel's personal finances, including his use of rent-stabilized apartment, his fundraising on behalf of a research institute bearing his name, and his failure to declare hundreds of thousands of dollars on income and assets on annual financial-disclosure reports.
The ethics committee, meanwhile, appears to have issues of its own.
In a statement Thursday night, ethics committee leaders Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), took Rangel and his staff to task — but also admonished the committee's own former counsel.
“The evidence shows that Representative Rangel’s staff knew that corporations had contributed funds to Carib News specifically for the 2007 and 2007 [trips],” Lofgren and Bonner said. “This information was not provided to the Standards Committee when [Rangel] sought and received approval to accept these trips.”
Lofgren and Bonner said the ethics committee “did not find actual evidence, nor does it believe that it would discover additional evidence” to show that Rangel personally knew about the corporate funding, but they added that Rangel “was responsible for the knowledge and actions of his staff in the performance of their officials duties.”
The committee faulted its former counsel, Dawn Kelly Mobley, for giving confidential information to Carib News officials about the probe.
And the ethics committee made a criminal recommendation to the Justice Department against three Carib News employees - Karl Rodney, Faye Rodney, and Patricia Louis - for having “submitted false or misleading information” to the ethics committee before it approved the trips.
At a Thursday evening news conference, Rangel lashed out at the ethics committee, and he was seen holding two closed-door meetings with Lofgren and Bonner off the House floor after the news broke that he would be the only one punished by the panel.
“I don’t want to be critical of the committee, but the common sense dictates that members of Congress should not be held responsible for what could be the wrongdoing of, or mistakes occur, as a staff unless there’s reason to believe the member knew or should have known. And there’s nothing in the record to indicate the latter,” Rangel told reporter. “So I have to now deal with my lawyer as to what the hell do they mean that something’s imputed. Does it mean that no matter what a staff member does if the member doesn’t know it that the member could be charged and admonished publicly for it?”
An ethics watchdog blasted the ethics committee for singling out Rangel for sanctions, saying all five members who went on the trips should have been admonished by the panel.
“The Ethics Committee decision’s makes no sense. There is simply no reason for Rep. Rangel alone to be held accountable for taking this trip when a number of other members were also present,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “The notion that Rep. Rangel alone was aware the trip was sponsored by corporate donors defies logic. There were banners identifying specific corporate donors and Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), publicly thanked corporate sponsors. The fact is, each and every member of Congress present was equally as culpable as Rep. Rangel and all should be held to the same standard.”