Charlie Rangel: Will He Stay or Will He Go?

Despite tax scandal, N.Y. Rep.'s Ways and Means chair position is secure.

September 18, 2008, 7:05 PM

Sept. 19, 2008— -- Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., is trying to set things right with his constituents and the IRS.

In an open letter to his constituents, Rangel, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he was being targeted as part of a "guerrilla war" waged by the GOP, which has come down hard on Rangel after revelations that he failed to pay more than $10,000 in back taxes. That's also amid allegations of other financial missteps.

Today Rangel paid back the debt.

He wrote six checks for roughly $10,800 to cover income taxes he owed in 2004, 2005 and 2006. The amount did not cover penalties or interest, but a spokesman for Rangel said if such fines are levied, the congressman will pay them.

Republican lawmakers have called repeatedly for Rangel to step down from his post as head of the committee, which writes American tax policy. Yesterday, for the second time, House Republicans held a vote to censure Rangel. And for a second time the vote failed, leaving Rangel in his leadership position while the House Ethics Committee conducts an investigation.

At issue:

The failure to pay back taxes is an especially embarrassing, considering Rangel's leadership position on the committee responsible for drafting the nation's tax policy.

In the past weeks, Rangel has tried to explain why he neglected to pay taxes on the $75,000 he received as income from renting out his Caribbean condo. He told reporters that his wife, Alma, handles all his personal finances, so he just wasn't aware of any possible negligence. Rangel also blamed a language barrier.

During a news conference earlier this month he said he had a hard time getting information about his finances from the resort managers in the Dominican Republic because he said he couldn't understand the language.

"Every time I thought I was getting somewhere, they'd start speaking Spanish," Rangel said.

When a reporter asked him how he couldn't know that he was making money from his rental property, he said, "I never got any idea that I had any income. Some years it was no income. I received no communication for the income."

After the issues came to light, Rangel asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate. He has acknowledged that he may have made some mistakes but says he has nothing to hide and will take full responsibility for his actions.

Some Republican lawmakers say the House Ethics review isn't enough.

House Minority leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, has been leading the charge to remove Rangel from the House and Ways Committee. He issued the following statement: "The chairman of the Ways and Means Committee has a solemn responsibility, and it is improper for Rep. Rangel to remain in a position with such vast power and influence with this ethical cloud hanging over him. When Democrats took the majority, Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi promised the most 'open and ethical' Congress in history. … The American people deserve far better than this."

At this point, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has publicly supported Rangel. After the two met Monday to discuss the situation, Pelosi said, "I see no reason why Mr. Rangel should step down." According to a spokesman for Pelosi, removing Rangel from his leadership position is "not off the table" but no such move will come until the House Ethics committee has completed its investigation.

Less than two months before Election Day, it's hard to ignore the potential political implications wrapped up in Rangel's financial woes. Republicans hold a minority in both the House and the Senate and face an uphill battle in November elections after dealing with a spate of congressional scandals involving big GOP names such as Tom DeLay and Ted Stevens.

Republicans could stand to benefit from a Democratic scandal that could help shift the nation's attention from those past debacles, or at least even the playing field a bit.

But it's unclear how large the Rangel scandal will loom in an election fraught with global issues with mammoth repercussions like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the recent financial meltdown on Wall Street. But the buzzword du jour on the campaign trail is "reform," especially of the "Washington establishment," which Rangel is a part.

On Thursday, Gene Green, the acting House Ethics Committee chairman, announced that the committee will meet Wednesday to decide whether to move forward with the inquiry, which, congressional sources say, it is likely to do, because the investigation was triggered at Rangel's request.

Meanwhile, Rangel has hired an independent forensics accounting firm to go through his personal finances and look into any indiscretions. Lanny Davis, Rangel's attorney, said the results of that investigation will go directly to the House Ethics Committee. Rangel has also promised to turn over 20 years of tax returns and other financial records to the committee, which he will eventually make public.

In the letter released by his campaign today, Rangel defended himself. It read, in part: "My record in the Ways and Means Committee and 38 years in Congress is unassailable. … I've never violated the public trust, so I'm not worried."

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