WASHINGTON, July 30, 2010 -- A House committee took the "right course" by moving ahead with plans for a public trial of New York Rep. Charles Rangel on ethics charges, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told "Good Morning America" this morning.
"There is a bipartisan committee in the House that's looking into some very serious charges. We believe that's the right course, and we're not going to prejudge the outcome of that trial," said Gibbs.
The trial sets the stage for an awkward spectacle for Democrats ahead of the midterm elections.
Rangel, 80, who was formerly chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, stands accused of 13 counts of violating House rules. He has denied any wrongdoing.
"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."
An adjudicatory committee of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats could hear Rangel's case beginning in September. 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.
Still, the spotlight on Rangel, a 40-year House veteran, could pose a political liability for Democrats and the administration, which have made ethics reform a cornerstone of their 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.
"I feel confident that this party and this president have a record of ethics, ethics reform and taking on the special interests that we're happy to put in front of the American people in November," said Gibbs.
Republicans appear poised to make inroads in the House, needing to win back only 39 seats to take a majority, and they have taken aim at the Rangel affair.
"This isn't about Charlie Rangel. This is about Speaker Pelosi's most glaring promise that she's broken," House Minority Leader John Boehner said Thursday.
Rumors of a possible plea deal between Rangel and the committee surfaced late Thursday, but no settlement has been announced. Republicans signaled publicly during a preliminary hearing that the time for negotiating has passed.
"Mr. Rangel was given multiple opportunities to settle this matter. Instead, he chose to move forward to the public trial phase," said Rep. Jo Bonner of Alabama, the senior Republican on the ethics panel.
Republican Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas also suggested Rangel was headed for certain public trial. "Let me be clear that Mr. Rangel was given the opportunity to negotiate a settlement during the investigation phase," said McCaul yesterday. "But this is the trial phase."
Scathing Charges Against Rangel
Rangel, whose 15th District includes Harlem, resigned his powerful committee chairmanship in March after the Ethics Committee found the congressman violated House rules on two corporate-funded trips to the Caribbean.
The committee's latest ethics report on Rangel details a "pattern of indifference or disregard for the laws, rules and regulations of the United States and the House of Representatives."
He stands accused of failing to reveal more than half a million dollars in assets on financial disclosure forms; 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 appeared to surround his fundraising activities for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York.
Rangel allegedly used his status on the Ways & Means Committee to aggressively raise money for the center from corporations and foundations that had business before the House and his committee, sometimes at the same time he was meeting with lobbyists from the very entities from which he was soliciting cash.
The committee said the donations personally benefited Rangel because the Rangel Center was to including "a well-furnished office for Congressman Rangel" as well as an archivist/librarian to organize his Congressional papers. Rangel himself described the Center as "an institution that would preserve the work of my public life."
Regarding Rangel's four luxury rent-controlled apartments, the committee said the lease on the one used for his campaign office said the apartment was "for living purposes only."
"The undisputed evidence in the record -- assembled by the Investigative Subcommittee over its nearly two-year investigation -- is that Congressman Rangel did not dispense any political favors, that he did not intentionally violate any law, rule or regulation, and that he did not misuse his public office for private gain," his office said in a statement responding to the charges.
The House investigation, which has spanned two years, included three interviews with Rangel and the review of more than 28,000 pages of documents.
If the trial commences as planned, it will mark a watershed moment for a man once considered one of the most powerful on Capitol Hill. It will also be the first time a congressman has been put on public trial for ethics charges since former Rep. James Traficant in 2002.
Democrats Distance Themselves from Rangel
Democratic leaders have publicly kept their distance from Rangel since news of the Ethics Committee charges surfaced last week.
Several Democrats in key races have returned campaign contributions from Rangel, others have called for him to step down.
In New York, an 80th birthday party and fundraiser for Rangel, scheduled for Aug. 11th at the Plaza Hotel, has been cast into doubt. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Tuesday he was unsure if he would attend.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said he wants to move past Rangel's problems.
"I think everybody would like to have it go away in the sense that this is not a pleasant process," Hoyer said Wednesday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the Rangel ethics investigation a "serious responsibility that we have."
"Individual discretions are not right," Pelosi said Thursday. "They must be judged and there must be accountability and there must be transparency, not to condone that."
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 will 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 disagreed with Pelosi's characterization of the situation during a news conference minutes later.
"The fact is the swamp has not been drained," he said. "I think that the American people expect that their members of Congress should be held to a high ethical standard."
ABC News' Matthew Jaffe, John Parkinson and Z. Byron Wolf contributed to this report.