WASHINGTON — Rep. Charles Rangel said Friday he won't step down as chairman of the powerful House tax-writing committee after being admonished by an ethics panel for accepting corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean. The public rebuke of one of the Democrats' most outspoken leaders posed more woes for a party that had vowed to end a "culture of corruption."
The House ethics committee said that aides to the 20-term New York Democrat tried at least three times to show him the trips — to Antigua in 2007 and St. Maarten in 2008 — had corporate sponsorship, a violation of congressional gift rules.
The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee claimed that Friday's report by the ethics panel "exonerates me" because it cites no evidence that he knew the trips were sponsored by corporations.
In a written statement, the congressman responded to the ethics panel, calling its decision "ill-considered, unprecedented, unfair ... and wrong on the facts and the law."
Rangel denied to investigators that he saw any of the written communications from staff members.
The report said investigators could not determine whether Rangel saw two staff memos to him mentioning corporate sponsorship in 2008 and a letter addressed to him in 2007.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, noting that multiple ethics complaints remain pending against Rangel, declined to say whether he should stay on the job. "We'll just see what happens next," Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters.
In addition to the trips, Rangel still faces potentially more serious allegations, including failing to disclose rental income on a villa in the Dominican Republic, use of his congressional office to raise money for a college center in his name and belated financial disclosure of hundreds of thousands of dollars in previously unreported wealth.
The latest ethics controversy presents yet another headache for Democrats in a difficult year as they try to revive stalled health care legislation and face a likely midterm election loss of seats in Congress. It also was a setback to Pelosi, who had promised to "drain the swamp" of ethics abuses as part of the Democratic campaign to win back the House in 2006.
The ethics panel — formally known as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — cited three written communications that it suggested should have alerted Rangel to the role of corporations:
- A memo to Rangel by a staff counsel on Sept. 25, 2008, discussing corporate sponsors for the 2008 conference in St. Maarten.
- A letter from the group listed as the conference sponsor, the Carib News Foundation, to American Airlines regarding tickets for the 2007 conference he attended in Antigua. It contained a line indicating a copy was sent to Rangel.
- An Oct. 23, 2008, memo from the staff counsel to Rangel, discussing an article in the New York Post that was critical of the 2007 conference because of allegations regarding corporate sponsorship.
Rangel told the committee he did not recall receiving the two memos or the letter about tickets, adding that he "did not know why he would have been copied" in on the airline letter.
The committee said that while it could not prove that Rangel did or did not see the communications, he was responsible for the actions of his staff.
Democrats divided over tax committee chairmanship
While Pelosi appears to be standing by Rangel for now, some rank-and-file Democrats are not.
Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., said Rangel should "either step down or step aside until this is resolved." Taylor is one of the most conservative Democrats in the House. Rangel, who represents Harlem, is one of the most liberal.
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Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., said: "Washington must be held to the highest ethical standards. Regrettably, with the finding of ethics violations, Charlie Rangel should step down from his leadership position."
Rep. William Pascrell, a Democrat from New Jersey and a member of the Ways and Means Committee, said he thinks Rangel should continue his job as chairman.
"I think the congressman has acted appropriately, swiftly, decisively reducing, making changes in his staff," Pascrell said. "They should've informed him. From what I know they did not and if they did that will come out in the wash."
"I think the report speaks for itself," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "They admonished him and he said he will pay for his trip. They made a finding that he did not knowingly violate any rules. ... And the other issues remain under review and they need to render a judgment expeditiously."
Should he step aside as chairman? "That would be disproportionate" to the panel's bipartisan finding of "no knowing violation," Van Hollen said.
Republicans have been demanding that Democrats replace Rangel at Ways and Means since investigations began last year.
The ethics panel exonerated five other members of the Congressional Black Caucus who were on either of the 2007 and 2008 trips or on both. But the panel said all six would have to pay the costs.
They were Democratic Reps. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Yvette Clarke of New York, Donald Payne of New Jersey, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick of Michigan and Donna Christensen, the nonvoting delegate from the Virgin Islands.
The ethics committee said the traveling House members relied on false information from the listed official sponsors of the trips, the Carib News, a New York newspaper, and the Carib News Foundation.
Peter Flaherty of the National Legal and Policy Center, an ethics watchdog group, attended the 2008 conference in St. Maarten and filed an ethics complaint that listed companies that had signs and materials at the event. He said Citigroup, Pfizer, American Airlines, AT&T, Verizon, Macy's and IBM were among them.
Rangel, 79, was first elected to the House in 1970 from New York's Harlem district, defeating Adam Clayton Powell Jr., at the time the most prominent black politician in the country and one with his own ethics problems.
NBC's Shawna Thomas contributed to this report.
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