Between 2004 and 2007, Rep. Charles Rangel steered nearly $80,000 in campaign cash to an Internet company run by his son – paying lavishly for a pair of political Web sites so poorly designed an expert estimated one should have cost no more than $100 to create.
The payments are apparently legal under federal law, but their disclosure raises new questions about the Ways and Means chairman as he faces House ethics committee probes into his failure to pay taxes on rental income and his alleged use of House stationery to solicit contributions for a public policy center that bears his name.
Rangel’s leadership PAC and congressional committee shelled out $79,560 to Edisonian Innovative Works LLC for “websites,” according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Edisonian Innovative Works, which lists several clients on its homepage – none of them politicians — was founded by Rangel’s son, Steven Charles Rangel, 40, of Greenbelt, Md.
“This is probably legal but is definitely wrong,” said Meredith McGeehee of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit organization that monitors compliance with electoral law.
“You're in a situation where you were given money for a campaign and it's being used to enrich family members,” she added. “The return argument is they're performing legitimate services. The question that needs to be asked in this case is: Was this a legitimate payment or was this a payoff?”
Rangel spokesman Emile Milne said Rangel’s son was a valuable member of the congressman’s re-election team and was paid a modest monthly retainer to build, maintain, update and publicize the site.
“Steven Rangel's firm was paid roughly $2,500 on a monthly basis—less than the firm that had previously managed Congressman Rangel's Web and on-line operation (Network Politics)—and the firm's fees included money for Web advertising designed to promote traffic to the Web site,” Milne wrote in an e-mail message to Politico.
“In 2007, the Rangel political organization made the decision to go with a scaled-back Web presence and hired NGP software” to run the site, he added.
Still, the sum paid to Rangel’s son was the most paid for Web sites by any House member during the 2004-to-2006 election period, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission filings provided to Politico by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) and since-ousted Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) were distant runners up, shelling out $44,000 and $30,000 for their Web sites, respectively, during the 2006 cycle.
Both Regula and Shays may have needed the exposure to fend off serious challengers. Rangel, a Harlem Democrat and dean of his state’s House delegation, hasn’t faced serious competition in years and retained his seat with 94 percent of the vote in 2006.
The vast majority of House candidates who set up campaign sites in 2006 paid a relative pittance, with 200 members spending less than $10,000 each for Web sites, according to the CRP analysis.
The payments to Steven Rangel began in mid-2004 and stopped in early 2007 when the former Marine, who is also a lawyer, was hired by the House Energy and Commerce Committee as an $80,000-per-year “investigative counsel,” according to records.
“It is difficult and often misleading to compare what individual members pay for Web services because of the wide range of activities that Web sites can support, depending on what campaigns choose to do with their sites,” Milne said.
Steven Rangel is close to his father and has long played an active role in his campaigns, even videotaping his dad’s campaign events in the early 1980s. The 78-year-old chairman often sleeps at his son’s house in Maryland, according to people who know both men.
Rangel is hardly the first House member to hire his family for campaigns. Between 2002 and 2005, Julie Doolittle was paid $136,000 in fundraising fees by the campaign of her husband, retiring Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.).
And Long Island Democratic Rep. Timothy Bishop raised eyebrows in 2005 when Newsday reported that he had paid his daughter Molly $87,828 in salary and travel expenses to act as his campaign’s finance director for two years.
But few relatives have ever played such a visible role.
Steven Rangel’s design for his father’s National Leadership PAC site appears to have been slapped together in a hurry, intermittently updated and never spell-checked.
An apologetic note near the top of the site warns readers that the page is undergoing “routine maintenace (sic)” and cautions that “much of our content is currently unavailable.”
Another button urges visitors to “Give Contribuition [sic].”
The site “is a one pager with a third party site taking donations,” said Jamie Newell of 7AZ Web Design, a company that creates sites for a wide array of businesses in Washington. “For something of that standard, I would not pay more than $100.”
The now-dormant page for the congressman’s 2006 re-election campaign should have cost “no more than $900,” excluding maintenance fees, Newell said.
Rangel’s 2008 campaign site was designed and run by non-relatives for less than $25,000.
Messages left on Steven Rangel’s work phone weren’t returned.
In a short bio written on his now-defunct personal Web page, he described how his frustration with designers led him to learn the ropes himself – and write an e-book on how to make money on the Internet.
"I… spent a lot of money trying to get third-party vendors to develop to my standards. Fed up with their performance, I decided to teach my self,” he wrote.