New Twist in Rangel Ethics Inquiry

Already embroiled in an ethics probe now entering its tenth month, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, received more bad news Wednesday night as the House ethics committee announced it would look into Caribbean trips taken by the veteran lawmaker and four other Democrats.

In a statement released late Wednesday night, Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), the chairwoman and ranking member of the ethics committee, announced that the panel had voted to create a four-member investigative subcommittee to determine whether the trips violated House gift rules.

In their statement, Lofgren and Bonner said the ethics panel had voted Wednesday to adopt a resolution "establishing an investigative subcommittee to investigate officially-connected travel that was sponsored, funded and organized by an organization knows as Carib News or Carib News Foundation."

Lofgren and Bonner acknowledged that the ethics committee had begun informally looking into the trips recently, but their statement was the first official acknowledgment by the ethics panel that it would take up the matter.

In addition to Rangel, other lawmakers who participated in the Caribbean trips include Reps. Carolyn Kirkpatrick (D-Mich.), Donald Payne (D-N.J.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Delegate Donna Christian-Christensen (D-V.I.).

All five Democrats are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and two — Rangel and Thompson — wield full committee gavels at Ways and Means and Homeland Security, respectively.

A conservative nonprofit group, the National Legal and Policy Center, has charged that the trip may have broken House rules on corporate-sponsored travel.

The latest step by the ethics committee ensures that Rangel, who is already the subject of a lengthy, and expanding, ethics committee investigation into his personal finances, will remain at the center of the growing fight with Republicans over alleged ethical violations by the majority party.

GOP leaders have successfully pushed for an ethics committee probe into lawmakers' relationships with the PMA Group, a now defunct lobbying firm at the center of a Justice Department criminal probe.

Republicans have also unsuccessfully pushed for an ethics committee probe of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) claim that the CIA misled her during intelligence briefings on the use of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” on terrorism detainees.

With some House insiders suggesting the Rangel probe had already bogged down in a partisan stalemate, the latest announcement by the ethics committee means that Rangel may face weeks, or even months, of added scrutiny.

Under House ethics committee rules, investigative subcommittees, which have subpoena power, must approve by a majority vote any finding of an alleged ethic violation. The full ethics committee would then have to take final action on the matter.

The ethics committee first voted on Sept. 24, at Rangel’s request, to create an investigative subcommittee to look into the New York Democrat’s personal finances, including his use of rent-stabilized apartments in a luxury Harlem building, his failure to fully pay taxes on a resort home in the Dominican Republic and his use of official House stationery to solicit potential donors for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service in New York.

The ethics panel then widened the probe in early December to look into allegations, first reported by The New York Times, that Rangel used his post as Ways and Means chairman to help a million-dollar donor to the Rangel Center retain a lucrative tax break.

Rangel has denied any allegations of wrongdoing and paid more than $10,800 in back taxes. The ethics committee does not comment on ongoing investigations.

Rangel has spent heavily on lawyers to represent him during the ethics investigation, paying out nearly $670,000 to his attorneys through the end of March, according to his Federal Election Commission reports.

But both Rangel and Pelosi have been wrong in their predictions about how quickly the ethics committee investigation could be completed.

Pelosi said before Thanksgiving last year that the probe would most likely be finished by the start of the 111th Congress in January, but with the House scheduled to adjourn for the weeklong July 4 recess Friday and no end to the Rangel case in sight, that target has been missed by six months.

Rangel himself told a Dow Jones reporter on May 24 that he was “optimistic that this very soon will be wrapped up,” but a month later, the investigation is going to proceed well into July, according to House sources.

In response to the controversy, House Republicans have tried to force Rangel to give up his gavel as chairman of Ways and Means, at least for the period that he was under investigation. Democrats have banded together to defeat the GOP effort, and Rangel has immersed himself in the ongoing legislative battles over health care and energy reform.

The subcommittee investigating the Carib News Foundation trips will be chaired by Rep. G.K Butterfield (D-N.C.) with J. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) as its ranking Republican.The other two members are Reps. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) and Michael Simpson (R-Idaho).

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