The Aroma of the Absurd on Capitol Hill

The strange case of Charles Rangel and the house ethics panel

Lewis Carroll’s great children’s book, “Alice in Wonderland”, came to mind as a subcommittee of the House of Representatives considered the case of Representative Charles Rangel of New York.  As the great English satirist told the story: 

‘No,no,’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first---verdict afterwards.’

‘Stuff and nonsense,’ said Alice loudly, ‘the idea of having the sentence first!”

There’s an aroma of the absurd about the way the House ethics subcommittee has handled Rangel’s case. Whether or not he committed the ethical violations charged, the congressman like any citizen deserves the presumption of innocence. He certainly didn’t get it. From the moment he appeared before the ethics group, Rangel’s fate was sealed.

When Rangel left the room on the grounds that he didn’t have a lawyer, the committee counsel used video clips of Rangel to prove his case.. The ethics committee raced through this evidence and quickly came to a decision. They were acting as prosecutor, jury and judge. This may be the way things are conducted in the House but it creates an unpleasant smell.

Rangel said: “I am very disappointed that the ethics subcommittee has chosen to proceed with the hearing knowing that I am without counsel,” reported The New York Times.

Rangel said he received an 80-page document detailing the charges just seven days before the hearing. He said that 13 days earlier the committee had suggested that Rangel establish a legal defense fund to pay for representation.  He added that was impractical on such short notice.

Lawmakers criticized the law firm that Rangel retained for taking $2 million from him, than dropping him as a client when he couldn’t pay a million more. The Congress, many of whose members are lawyers, should consider the ethics involved in this episode too.

“The process that the committee has decided to take against me violates the most basic rights of due process that is guaranteed to every person under the Constitution,” Rangel declared.

Congressman O. K. Butterfield of North Carolina asked the committee counsel, R. Blake     Chisam: “Do you see any evidence of personal financial benefit or corruption?”

Chisam replied: “I see no evidence of corruption. It’s hard to answer the question of personal financial benefit. Do I believe based on this record that Congressman Rangel took steps to enrich himself based on his position in Congress? I don’t.

“I believe that the Congressman, quite frankly, was overzealous in many of the things he did and at least sloppy in his financial -- his personal finances.”

So are we wrecking a career of 50 years on the basis of his sloppiness? Should the charge be sloppiness  in the first degree or what?

I don’t mean to excuse any of the offenses of which the congressman is accused. But it seems to me, from my knowledge of Mr. Rangel, that in creating a school of public service at City College bearing his name he may have committed the sin of pride. The Congress has 535 members I would bet that there are 534 besides Rangel who share the same sin.

 As you review this case,  you have to be struck by the rush to judgment here. Is it time to remember Rangel’s heroism in his youth? In Korea, in November 1950, just 60 years ago, Rangel won the Bronze Star when he was wounded while trying to lead 60 men to safety in freezing temperature behind Chinese lines.

And I think of another incident I witnessed recently when Rangel went to Calvary Hospital in the Bronx after hearing that a dying woman wanted to become a citizen before it was too late. He came to the hospital the next day with a framed, specially designed certificate that proclaimed that the woman, Gloria Canonizado, was an “honorary citizen.”  The woman wept as he made a flowery presentation speech and he had tears in his eyes too.

Rangel may deserve to be disciplined. But I think, as the overwhelming majority of voters in his district expressed it on Election Day, he also deserves some compassion.

They think -- and I agree -- that he is a good guy.                   

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