Rangel Ethics Trial To Start

A special House panel will start Thursday hearing ethics charges against 40-year veteran Charles Rangel of New York. Rangel stepped down as chairman of the tax-writing committee to fight the charges and continues to deny wrongdoing.

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DON GONYEA, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The wheels of the congressional ethics process grind so slowly that, for months at a time, nothing seems to be happening at all. But today, the long investigation of the personal finances of 40-year veteran Charles Rangel of New York comes to a highly public turning point.

The charges against him will be read out at the congressional subcommittee that will pass judgment on his case, unless Rangel makes a deal with the Ethics Committee to avoid a public trial. Joining us now is NPR news analyst Juan Williams.

Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: You know, for starters, remind us of why Charlie Rangel has such a high profile in Congress.

WILLIAMS: Well, you wouldn't ask that question in Harlem or on Capitol Hill.

MONTAGNE: Or if you've lived in New York, which I have for years and years. But for most people, they may not be real familiar with him.

WILLIAMS: Well, Renee, he's a legendary 80-year-old Korean War veteran, cofounder of the Congressional Black Caucus. Now, he still stands as the fourth most senior Democrat in the House of Representatives. He may be the best known African-American in Congress.

And until March of this year, he was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which is extremely powerful. They write all the tax laws, trade policy, handle Medicare, social security. So he's an iconic figure.

MONTAGNE: So - and a little more history. This investigation began some time ago with stories in the New York Times.

WILLIAMS: It did. And what it's - the charges, which would be laid out today, beginning around one o'clock in the afternoon Eastern Time, would detail some things about his soliciting money for contributions to a center at City College of New York, his handling of four rent-controlled properties in New York, questions about paying taxes on a villa in the Dominican Republic. He's also admitted that he's failed to list hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets on disclosure forms. So it's this kind of business that's going to be literally laid bare by the committee.

MONTAGNE: And earlier this year, Rangel stepped down as the chairman of that Ways and Means Committee, but these charges that we will likely be hearing this afternoon, they're broader than those that got him to step down.

WILLIAMS: That's right. He was willing to respond that, you know, he made some - what he called - honest mistakes, lapsed judgments. But here, we're talking about his legacy. And, you know, you think back, it was 2002 the last time that we saw a hearing of this type. It involved Jim Traficant of Ohio. And, you know, that was an expulsion.

And I think that what you're seeing here is a very proud man, Charlie Rangel, saying he doesn't want to admit to such broad charges because it would literally besmirch his legacy. They already have two Democrats who want him to resign. Republicans are saying that about half a million dollars in campaign contributions to other Democrats have been returned for fear that he will damage their campaigns.

And if you look back in terms of criminal liability, you look at people like what happened to Dan Rostenkowski in the mid-90s, and it just looks like, you know, people end up going to jail. They end up as just broken people. And Charlie Rangel is standing there, defiant.

MONTAGNE: Well, just very briefly, there's talk of a deal with the full committee and representatives of Charlie Rangel. What's the chances of that happening before the subcommittee reads these charges out?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's always possible, but I think by now you would've anticipated something would have broken. There's going to be - there's tremendous pressure. The House leadership - Nancy Pelosi and the like - are not, at the moment, standing by Charlie Rangel, even people from the New York delegation. There's supposed to be a birthday party for him here in August. So the pressure's building on Charlie Rangel to make a deal.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR news analyst Juan Williams joined us from our New York bureau.

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