Longtime Congressman Fights To Save Job

New York Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel has been serving for more than 40 years. But now a congressional ethics investigation may bring an early end to his long career. Rangel is accused of failing to pay taxes on more than a quarter million dollars and abusing the power of his office to raise money for a private center bearing his name. NPR's Political Editor Ken Rudin puts the investigation in context and discusses Rangel's uncertain future.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a school diversity plan in one North Carolina community was scrapped after some parents protested long commutes and complicated schedules for their kids. That sparked angry debates, loud demonstrations and even arrests. We'll explore the issues and where both sides stand now, in a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about that congressional ethics investigation. It has tarnished and may even end the more than 40 yearlong career of New York Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel. He's been accused of failing to declare, let alone pay taxes on more than a quarter million dollars worth of assets and of misusing his office to raise money for a private center that is named for him at City College of New York. So far Congressman Rangel has expressed confidence that he will be exonerated as he did in a Capitol Hill press conference on Friday.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Representative CHARLES RANGEL (Democrat, New York): This is going to be done before my primary election, before the general election under light of a public explanation of what they have found as a result of the investigation will be made public.

MARTIN: A House Ethics Subcommittee is expected to outline the case surrounding Congressman Rangel later this week. But we wanted to know more, so we've called NPR's political editor Ken Rudin. He's with us now. Welcome back, Ken. Thank you for joining us.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So what is the process here?

RUDIN: The process is that the House Ethics Committee has already decided that there's a substantial reason to believe that he did Congressman Rangel violated the House ethics. So on Thursday there will be a subcommittee of the Ethics Committee that will publicly announce the charges and we assume as you said earlier that these are the charges that's been around for at least two years. That Charlie Rangel from the beginning has said that he just did not violate.

MARTIN: And of course the committee has to issue this report. But can you just give us a sense of what we think the charges will be?

RUDIN: Well, we think that he I mean he traveled. He took a little junket, a corporate sponsored trip down to the Caribbean, which is in violation of House rules. He had the use of four rent stabilized apartments in Harlem, including one for campaign headquarters that's way below market price. He owned some property a Dominican Republic villa that, as you say, not only refused to report income, but didn't pay taxes on.

And this is somebody who was for the longest time was the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee which writes the tax laws in this country. So the Democrats came to Congress in 2006, came to power in 2006, campaigning against the Republican culture of corruption. We heard about Mark Foley and Bob Ney and Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff and those guys Duke Cunningham. And they won control of Congress partially on this argument that the Republicans were corrupt.

The last thing the Democrats want is the picture of Charlie Rangel in every Republican ad around the country saying this is the Democrats. These are the Democrats who are corrupt. Charlie Rangel has also given a lot of money. He's, you know, a tremendous fundraiser, given money to House and Senate Democratic candidates and Republicans are demanding that these guys give the money back. So a lot of Democrats are nervous about the implications of what this could mean for November.

MARTIN: What then happens? Does this is this conducted like a trial? Both sides present evidence and who is the ultimate deciding body about whether or not these charges will stick?

RUDIN: Right. It is a trial and the last time we saw this it was 2002 with James Traficant the Ohio then a Democrat, now he's an Independent. But Jim Traficant, who was, you know, convicted on sort of ethics and corruption charges. He was expelled from Congress the first one since Abscam to be expelled from Congress and only the second since the Civil War.

So, anyway, they would have a public trail. Charlie Rangel could defend himself. He can call witnesses. He could bring other evidence. But, again, the Democrats really, really don't want to get to that.

MARTIN: What has he said about this so far? He's already been forced to step aside as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

RUDIN: After he said he wouldn't as a matter fact, he said for the longest time he would not resign as chairman. Nancy Pelosi, for the longest time, speaker Nancy Pelosi said that there's no reason for him to give it up. But behind the scenes it's understood, as my understanding, that Nancy Pelosi, some of the senior Democrats in the House say, look, you had to resign from Ways and Means because it was getting ugly. And I think similar pressure is going on Charlie Rangel right now.

MARTIN: And obviously there are several audiences here. One is his peers in Congress, one is a larger Democratic Party and then there are his constituents. What do we know about how they are responding to this so far?

RUDIN: Well...

MARTIN: He has a primary challenge.

RUDIN: He does.

MARTIN: Which he has not had for quite some time.

RUDIN: He does.

MARTIN: A former aide, by the way. But...

RUDIN: Not only a former aide, but the son of the guy he defeated in 1970, Adam Clayton Powell, a state assemblyman, Adam Clayton Powell IV, who ran against Charlie Rangel back in '94 and got clobbered, is running against him again in the September 14th Democratic primary.

Charles Rangel has no problem with the folks back home. He's very, very popular. They love him. You know, he, he's always been Charlie. He's been in Congress since 1970. It's never been Charles Rangel. It's Charlie, he's, you know, a hand shaking, back slapping kind of politician, very, very popular. And there are four Democrats challenging him in the primaries. How even if, you know, they all get some amount of the vote, nobody's going to do enough to topple them in the primary.

MARTIN: Well, we'll see. Ken Rudin, keep us posted.

RUDIN: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: All right, Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. You can find his blog Political Junkie at NPR.org. He was with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thanks, Ken.

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