Embattled New York Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel delivered a bold and at times emotional impromptu speech from the House floor this afternoon, imploring his fellow lawmakers to expedite a hearing on alleged ethics violations and give him a chance to clear his name.
"I'm 80 years old, hey, I don't want to die before the hearing," said Rangel, expressing frustration at the course of his two-year ethics inquiry. "People I represent are entitled to know who their congressman is.
Rangel, who was formerly chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, stands accused of 13 counts of violating House rules. An adjudicatory committee of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats could hear Rangel's case beginning in September.
"All my life has been from the beginning public service. That's all I have ever done," he said. "If it is the judgment of people here for whatever reason that I resign, then have the ethics committee expedite this. Don't leave me swinging in the wind until November."
The remarks, which lasted for 37 minutes, were the first time Rangel had directly and so explicitly addressed the charges against him or the pending trial before his colleagues.
After the remarks House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear she would have preferred that Rangel's case play out off the House floor. "As I have repeatedly stated, the independent, bipartisan Ethics Committee is the proper arena for ethics matters to be discussed," she said in a statement. "The process is moving forward in a way that will ensure that the highest ethical standards are upheld in the House of Representatives."
But Rangel today took direct aim at at that process and the suggestion by some House lawmakers that he retire or resign from office.
"Even some people said that the president had suggested that his life might be made easier if there was no Charlie Rangel so-called scandal," he said, referring to President Obama's comments to CBS last week that Rangel seek to end his career with dignity.
"But I interpreted it another way. I think when the president said that he wanted me to end my career in dignity, he didn't put a time limit on it, and I would think that his concern would be that if any member of the House of Representatives has been accused of serious crimes or allegations ... the member has an opportunity to tell his constituents, his family and his friends what he didn't believe."
If the charges are upheld, Rangel could face a humiliating report on his actions, a public reprimand or censure by the House, or expulsion, which is considered unlikely.
Rangel Apologizes for Embarrassment, Denies Corruption
Rangel also specifically addressed some of the accusations against him, including his alleged use of franking privileges and official stationery for fundraising efforts.
"There has to be a penalty for grabbing the wrong stationery and not doing the right thing," he said. "It may be wrong, it may be stupid, but it's not corrupt."
He also addressed his alleged failure to disclose more than half a million dollars of financial assets on tax forms.
"There absolutely is no excuse there. … I hired accountants to check out what the heck is going on to make certain that when I stand up and speak it's true. After I found out it was far more serious than the accusations, I turned it in to the ethics committee," he said. "There is no, not one scintilla bit of evidence that there was some way to hide from the public what I had."
He also stands accused of improperly obtaining four rent-controlled apartments in New York City and failing to disclose financial arrangements for a villa at the Punta Cana Yacht Club in the Dominican Republic.
The most serious allegations appear to surround his fundraising activities for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York.
"I'm prepared to say I'm sorry for any embarrassment that has caused," he said of the charges.
Rangel, a 40-year House veteran, has been viewed as a potential political liability for Democrats and the administration, which have made ethics reform a cornerstone of leadership in Washington.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously pledged to "drain the swamp" and "make this the most honest, ethical and open Congress in history," when Democrats took control in 2006.
While Pelosi has avoided commenting specifically on Rangel's case, she said the ethics panel process will run its course and that the political ramifications of the case in an election year would be known in due time.
"The process will work. It's bipartisan," she said of the panel. "And the chips will have to fall where they may politically, but upholding the highest ethical standards is a top priority for us."
House Minority Leader John Boehner has disagreed with Pelosi's characterization of the situation, saying, "The fact is the swamp has not been drained. ... I think that the American people expect that their members of Congress should be held to a high ethical standard."
Rangel indicated today that the protracted investigation and pending trial have strained his finances with legal fees exceeding $2 million. But he also suggested he may have reached an arrangement with his lawyer to defend him pro bono.
Rangel also warned his colleagues, who were in Washington for a rare one-day session to pass a state jobs bill, that the same ethics committee limbo could happen to them.
"I don't expect answers today. I know you're going home. I wish all of you well. But at the end of the day somebody has to do more than wish I go away," he said. "Don't let this happen to you. ... I'm not asking for leniency. I'm asking for exposure of the facts.
"If I can't get my dignity back here, then fire your best shot in terms of expulsion. I deserve and demand the right to be heard. ... You're not going to tell me to resign to make you feel more comfortable."