Former committee chairman Rep. Charles Rangel attempted a last-minute plea deal Tuesday to head off a House ethics trial that could embarrass him and damage Democrats facing potentially severe election losses.
The talks between Rangel's lawyer and the House ethics committee's nonpartisan attorneys were confirmed by ethics Chairman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. She said she is not involved in the talks, adding that the committee's lawmakers have always accepted the professional staff's recommendations in previous plea bargains.
Rangel, D-N.Y., the former Ways and Means Committee chairman, would have to admit to multiple, substantial ethics violations unless ethics lawyers dramatically changed their negotiating stance.
Earlier negotiations broke down when Rangel would only admit to some allegations — not enough to satisfy the ethics committee lawyers, according to people familiar with those talks who were not authorized to be quoted by name.
Rangel, a 40-year House veteran who is 80 years old, stepped down from his chairmanship in March when the ethics committee found he should have known that corporations financed two trips to Caribbean conferences. While chairman, Rangel was a major force in stimulus bills, health care reform, trade and tax legislation. He is tied for fourth in seniority in the 435-member House.
If the negotiations are not successful, trial proceedings for the Harlem congressman would begin Thursday with a public reading of alleged ethics violations that are still confidential.
A subcommittee of four Democrats and four Republicans, led by Lofgren, would then conduct the actual trial later and decide whether the charges are proved by clear and convincing evidence.
The trial committee would be made up of lawmakers who were not part of the investigative panel that charged Rangel with multiple violations connected to his fundraising, financial disclosure and failure to pay taxes on income from a resort unit. The trial committee can decide whether to conduct some of its proceedings in public.
If there is a plea bargain or a finding that the evidence supports the charges, the ethics committee would make a decision on punishment that could range from a critical report, to a censure by the House or an expulsion vote.
The only previous case to go to an ethics committee trial was the investigation of former Rep. Jim Traficant of Ohio, who was expelled by a 420-1 vote in 2002. He went to prison after his conviction in federal court for racketeering and bribery.
Some Democrats have called for Rangel to resign. Others have returned money he raised for them. Many Democrats are worried that they'll be targets of negative campaign ads about Rangel if a trial gets under way in September.
An ethics case against former Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, involving his suggestive e-mails to former male pages, coincided with the 2006 campaign and was among the reasons the GOP lost control of the House.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who was not confirming any negotiations, told reporters Tuesday, "I think everybody would like to have it go away in the sense that this is not a pleasant process."
The Maryland Democrat said he didn't know what Rangel's decision would be.
"Mr. Rangel has to do what Mr. Rangel believes is appropriate and proper," said Hoyer.
Lofgren said lawmakers have peppered her with questions about the negotiations.
"People want to know, am I doing a deal? The answer is no," Lofgren said. "I don't know whether it's possible or not. The professional staff can arrange a settlement."
A House investigative committee last week cited Rangel for multiple alleged violations. People familiar with the charges, who were not authorized to be quoted, said they related in part, to:
- Rangel's use of official stationery to raise money for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York.
- A possible role in preserving a tax shelter for an oil drilling company, Nabors Industries, whose chief executive donated money to the Rangel Center while Ways and Means considered the loophole legislation.
- Rangel's use of four rent-subsidized apartment units in New York City.
- Rangel's failure to report income as required on his annual financial disclosure forms. The committee had investigated his failure to report income from the lawmaker's rental unit at the Punta Cana Yacht Club in the Dominican Republic. Rangel also belatedly disclosed between $239,000 and $831,000 in investment assets.
- His failure to pay taxes on all his income from the resort unit.