Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has been under investigation for eight months, accused of violating congressional gift rules by letting corporations pay for Caribbean trips in 2007 and 2008.
Soon after the House Ethics Committee released a report on Feb. 26, 2010, admonishing Rangel for making the trips, he defiantly insisted the report cleared him of wrongdoing.
"I'm glad for the wording of it because clearly the wording exonerates me," Rangel said.
The ethics report found that Rangel's aides tried at least three times -- twice in memos and once in a letter to him -- to show him that his Caribbean trips had corporate sponsors, but he denied seeing any of them. And he says his staff never told him about them. The ethics committee concluded there was no evidence that he did see the correspondences sent to him. But the report did not clear him of responsibility.
Here's what the letter accompanying the ethics report states:
"The Report further finds that Representative Charles B. Rangel violated the House gift rule by accepting payment or reimbursement for travel to the 2007 and 2008 conferences. The evidence shows that members of Representative Rangel's staff knew that corporations had contributed funds to Carib News specifically for the 2007 and 2008 conferences. This information was not provided to the Standards Committee when he sought and received approval from the Committee to accept these trips. The Committee does not find sufficient evidence to conclude, nor does it believe that it would discover additional evidence to alter its conclusion, that Representative Rangel had actual knowledge of the memoranda written by his staff. However, the report finds that Representative Rangel was responsible for the knowledge and actions of his staff in the performance of their official duties. It is the intention of the Committee that the publication of this Report will serve as a public admonishment by the Standards Committee of Representative Rangel. The Committee will also require Representative Rangel to repay the costs of the trips to the respective entities that paid for his travel."
Rangel argues that the report did not find sufficient evidence to conclude that he had direct knowledge of the corporate sponsorship of his travel, so that means he was "exonerated."
"Members of Congress should not be held responsible for what could be the wrongdoings or mistakes or errors of staff," Rangel said.
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines "exonerate" as: "to relieve of a responsibility, obligation, or hardship; to clear from accusation or blame."
The ethics report did not do that. In fact, the report found that Rangel "was responsible for the knowledge and actions of his staff." And the report included a "public admonishment" of Rangel.
The ethics panel did exonerate five other members of the Congressional Black Caucus who went on the same trips, multinational business conferences held in Antigua and Barbuda in November 2007 and St. Maarten in November 2008. The report concluded that their respective staff members didn't know about the corporations paying for the trips, so the members of Congress did not knowingly violate any rules and committed no wrongdoing because they were "provided false information by others, and relied upon that information in seeking approval to accept the trips." Nonetheless, the report states, the trips were "impermissible gifts," and they must repay the cost of the travel.
As for Rangel, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, a New York Times story on Feb. 26, 2010, notes that the ethics panel, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, "is still examining more serious dealings involving Mr. Rangel, including campaign finance issues, failure to pay federal taxes on rental income from a Dominican villa and the use of rent-stabilized apartments."
At a news briefing, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Rangel is entitled to "have his day" before the ethics committee on those allegations.
"They (the ethics committee members) have said he did not knowingly violate the rules," Pelosi said. "And again, if this were the end of it, that would be one thing, but there's obviously more to come, and we'll see what happens with that. But every member has that right.
"I think it's quite a statement to hold members accountable for what their staffs knew," Pelosi said. "I would be interested to see how that reverberates. But we have to place our confidence appropriately, and we’re held responsible for that."
You can agree with the ethics panel ruling or not, but the fact is it found that even if Rangel had no direct knowledge of the staff memos warning him about corporate sponsorship, Rangel "was responsible for the knowledge and actions of his staff in the performance of their official duties." There's just no way to spin that into "exoneration." To the contrary, the ethics report included a public admonishment of Rangel. And so we rule Rangel's comment Pants on Fire!