Rep. Charles Rangel dodges questions about an impending ethics trial and rumors about a potential settlement to stave it off.
The panel that charged New York Democrat Charles Rangel with 13 counts of ethical misdeeds recommended he receive a relatively mild rebuke by the full House, one of the investigators said Friday.
The House ethics committee has a range of punishments it can administer or recommend to the full House. A reprimand is simply a vote by the House to express displeasure with a member's conduct, and would follow a finding of guilt in a trial.
Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, said the two Democrats and two Republicans on the panel that investigated Rangel for two years were not unanimous in bringing all 13 charges against him, and "the recommendation we had was a reprimand." Green is one of the Democrats on the panel.
A separate ethics panel on Thursday set the stage for a trial of Rangel this fall. A trial would mean any decision on penalties would be months away, if Rangel's guilt is proved.
A reprimand is less serious than a censure, which requires not only a vote but forces a member to appear at the front of the chamber while the speaker or another designated member reads the censure resolution.
The eight ethics committee members who will conduct the trial held its organizational meeting Thursday. The message going forward, from the top Republican on the panel, was: Let the trial begin.
Rangel was "given the opportunity to negotiate a settlement during the investigation phase," Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas said. "We are now in the trial phase."
But Green said a settlement was still possible.
Republicans have already been making Rangel a campaign issue, and a fall trial would give them expanded opportunities. It can't start until September, because Congress takes August off.
Soon after the charges were revealed, the National Republican Senatorial Committee warmed up its campaign message, issuing news releases in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Louisiana and Florida. The statements asked why Democratic Senate candidates in those states haven't yet returned money Rangel raised for them.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs countered: "I feel confident that this party and this president have a record on ethics reform and taking on the special interests that we're happy to put in front of the American people in November." He spoke on ABC's "Good Morning America."
For Rangel, a trial could be a terrible embarrassment for the former Ways and Means Committee chairman who held sway over taxes, trade, Medicare, Social Security, portions of the health care overhaul and other major issues.
In the frantic hours before the televised ethics proceeding, Rangel did take the advice of some Democratic colleagues and offered a new plea bargain in an effort to head off a trial.
At one point, people familiar with the talks said the committee's nonpartisan lawyers accepted the offer. But since committee members have to sign off on any deal, Republican statements indicate they would accept nothing less than a capitulation by Rangel in which he acknowledges guilt on almost all the charges. Rangel's offer was not made public.
It would take at least one Republican vote to halt a trial. And ethics chairman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., has made it clear she wants the committee to be unanimous at this point to avoid partisanship.
If Rangel admits to all the violations, the trial could be stopped and the ethics committee would proceed to penalty deliberations. Possibilities range from a highly critical report of Rangel's conduct, a reprimand or censure by the House to a fine or even expulsion. The latter is highly unlikely.
A 40-year House veteran from Harlem who is now 80 years old, Rangel himself seemed resigned to a trial hours after the charges were read publicly.
"Even though they are serious charges, I'm prepared to prove that the only thing I've ever had in my 50 years of public service is service," Rangel told reporters Thursday night. "That's what I've done and if I've been overzealous providing that service, I can't make an excuse for the serious violations."
The allegations include failure to report rental income from vacation property in the Dominican Republic, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional income and assets on his financial disclosure statements.
Other charges focused on Rangel's use of congressional staff and stationery to raise money for a college center in New York named after him; accepting favors from donors who may have influenced his congressional actions; use of a subsidized New York apartment as a campaign office instead of as a residence, as required; and misuse of the congressional free mail privilege to solicit donations.
Associated Press writers Ann Sanner, Alex Brandon and David Martin contributed to this report.