Rep. Charlie Rangel, the latest congressional titan with ethics problems, is described by a longtime House colleague as the guy who would make sure everyone put on oxygen masks during a flight emergency, but would have to be told to put on his own.
If Rep. Gary Ackerman's characterization fits the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, then Rangel's inattention to his ethical conduct has reached epic proportions.
The person most in charge of writing the nation's tax laws neglected to pay taxes on rental income from his vacation villa in the Dominican Republic. He failed to report assets worth hundreds of thousands of dollars on his annual disclosure forms, including a hard-to-miss credit union account worth up to $500,000. And those are only some of his lapses.
"You have to remind him to take care of himself," said Ackerman, who has served with his fellow New York Democrat for 26 years and watched his 79-year-old friend extend kindness and campaign money to many party members.
Some congressional kingpins who had legal and ethical problems had plenty of political and personal enemies. Former Democratic Speaker Jim Wright, ex-Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich and "The Hammer" — former GOP House leader Tom DeLay — all did.
Political foes but few enemies
Rangel, on the other hand, is a Democratic powerhouse with political foes but few enemies. First elected in 1970 from Harlem, the guy with the hoarse voice, large girth and an accent that oozes New York, is well liked by colleagues in both parties.
The current House Republican leader, John Boehner of Ohio, used the words "friend" and a derivative of that word four times in a letter asking Rangel to relinquish his chairmanship until the House ethics committee finished investigating his conduct.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat who leads the House Rules Committee, will never forget what Rangel said during a tough re-election fight long ago. She can't recall the year, but she remembers what she was promised by Rangel, one of the few New York City politicians then willing to help upstate lawmakers.
"He told me no Democratic congressman was going to lose an election while he was in charge," Slaughter said. With Rangel's help, she won and is now in her 12th term.
Rangel dropped out of high school at 16. He earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for service in the Korean War. He drew on his combat experience for the title of his autobiography: "And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since."
He finished high school and college after the war, served in the state Legislature and then ousted Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a legendary Harlem congressman with his own ethical problems.
The ethics committee's investigation of Rangel is almost a year old. It's as much a problem for House Democratic leaders as Rangel himself.
Later this year, when Rangel's committee considers estate tax legislation that could expand into other matters, the headlines will be a version of this message: "Tax scofflaw presiding over tax changes." That's Republican campaign fodder for 2010.
Appears not in danger of losing re-election
If past investigations offer a clue, the worst Rangel will get is a report criticizing his conduct — with the severity of the language depending on the investigation's findings. He's paid back taxes and amended his financial disclosure forms. With a winning margin of 89.2 percent in 2008 he seems in no danger of losing re-election.
The ethics committee could do more and recommend that Democrats strip Rangel of his chairmanship. But a better question might be whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would take that step — regardless of the committee's conclusion — if Rangel becomes a political liability.
Rangel's spokesman recently said the lawmaker "has subjected himself to an unprecedented level of scrutiny," even requesting the ethics inquiry, but would say no more until it's completed.
The committee of five Democratic and five Republicans is also investigating whether Rangel and four other members of the Congressional Black Caucus violated gift rules and other standards of conduct with trips to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008.
It's also looking at contributions of money or monetary pledges to the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York, and his use of official House stationery to transmit letters to potential donors.
‘There's been no difference in Charlie’
Other questions involve Rangel's acceptance and use of rent-stabilized apartments in New York from a Manhattan developer, and whether he received a sweetheart deal to finance his ownership interest in the Dominican resort.
The committee has yet to add to the list the financial disclosure omissions, but is likely to do so.
Stanley Brand, a former House counsel who has represented numerous politicians with ethics troubles, said "old school" lawmakers such as Rangel often think they don't have to stay current with tightened ethics rules.
"As they rise in seniority ... they think less about changes occurring under their nose," Brand said. "Over time it becomes less important to them. They pay less attention to it even though they probably should, while the ethics manual gets thicker."
If Rangel is feeling pain privately, it's not apparent to his friends.
"There's been no difference in Charlie," Ackerman said. "He's Mr. New York. You look at him and start singing `East Side, West Side.'"