With the investigation of Rep. Charles Rangel nearing its second anniversary, the New York Democrat and the House ethics committee face a new challenge — the political calendar.
Rangel, a member of Congress since 1971, filed for reelection Sunday, and the Democratic primary in New York is Sept. 14.
If the ethics committee releases a damaging report on Rangel before the Sept. 14 primary, it could be a death blow to the Harlem congressman’s storied career and open the door to a serious Democratic challenge, Democratic colleagues and party strategists said.
But if the ethics committee’s findings come out after the primary, Rangel will very likely survive and win a 21st term in the House. Still, that timing would raise questions about the ethics committee’s process and whether the investigative panel was too aware of the political calendar.
There is also a larger issue at play for the Democratic Party: If Rangel is found to have violated ethics rules, Republicans will proceed to hammer the dozens of Democrats who have received money and political support from the longtime incumbent. Rangel distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to his Democratic colleagues during the past few election cycles, although that money pipeline has now been shut off as Rangel’s ethics problems have grown progressively worse.
If the investigation drags on past the November election, ethics committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Alabama Rep. Jo Bonner, the panel’s top Republican, could face accusations that the committee was covering for one of its own, protecting a well-known incumbent at the expense of the House’s reputation.
“It would let everyone say that this is a coverup, that it’s just the same old [ethics] system,” said a Democrat close to party leaders. “It would give the appearance that nothing has changed,” despite the Democratic takeover in 2006.
Lofgren and Bonner declined to comment on the Rangel case. Lofgren noted that the committee’s rules do not allow new ethics complaints to be filed within 60 days of an election but would not say anything further on the committee’s plans or where its Rangel investigation stands.
“We have our rules,” Lofgren said.
In an interview, Rangel noted that he was the one who first asked the committee to look into his personal finances, back in July 2008.
Rangel — who turns 80 on Friday — also downplayed the political fallout from the case against him, insisting that he is innocent while expressing confidence that any report from the special investigative subcommittee looking into his personal finances will show he did nothing wrong.
“Not if I’m exonerated,” Rangel said when asked about the potential fallout from the ethics inquiry.
At his reelection announcement Sunday in New York, Rangel defended himself, saying the ethics probe has been going on for 18 months and nobody has discovered any wrongdoing on his part. And he explained why he gave up his chairmanship.
“I stepped aside [from his chairmanship] so I would not be a target for the Republicans,” he said.
Rangel’s ethics problems began nearly two years ago, after The New York Times reported that he occupied four rent-controlled apartments in a luxury Harlem apartment building.
That was followed by allegations that Rangel used his position as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee to raise money for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York, failed to pay taxes on income from a resort home in the Dominican Republic and did not disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets and income on his annual financial disclosure form.
Rangel handed over his Ways and Means gavel after an ethics committee finding in February that the New York Democrat violated House rules after being reimbursed for improper, corporate-funded trips to the Caribbean in 2008. Rangel was the only one of seven lawmakers scrutinized by the ethics panel over the trips, and he was the only one singled out for a rules violation.
Sources close to Rangel said he believes Republicans, both on the ethics panel and in the GOP leadership, have already gotten what they wanted — forcing him out as Ways and Means Committee chairman. He was replaced by Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), although Rangel has made no secret of his desire to chair the committee again. His official congressional website still lists him as chairman.
At this point, Rangel will benefit from any delay of a report by the ethics committee, at least until his primary election is over.
“He’s reached a tipping point,” said an ethics expert familiar with the case. Rangel “needs this to happen after the primary. After the [midterm elections] would be even better. The political calculus has changed for him.”
“No one ever thinks it will take this long,” Stan Brand, a top congressional ethics lawyer, said of the length of such investigations. “But it’s always better [for members] the longer it drags on. This is true here in Rangel’s case.”
A former ethics committee member, who asked for anonymity, said he expected the panel would issue its Rangel findings “after the primary.” That timeline would damage Rangel’s reputation but not affect his reelection in the overwhelmingly Democratic district he represents.
This GOP lawmaker also said committee members “are very aware of the calendar” when they review ethics allegations.
Rangel still faces a handful of potential challengers in the Democratic primary, including Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, son of the former congressman whom Rangel replaced. Rangel handily defeated Powell in 1994.
Other possible candidates include Vince Morgan, Rangel’s former campaign manager; Jonathan Tasini, a labor activist; and Joyce Johnson, former president and CEO of the Black Equity Alliance.
Maggie Haberman contributed to this report.