Ethics panel finds Rangel broke rules |

Ethics panel finds Rangel broke rules

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – Rep. Charles Rangel, the most powerful tax-writing lawmaker in Congress and a 40-year veteran of Capitol Hill, acknowledged Thursday that an ethics panel has accused him of accepting corporate money for Caribbean trips in violation of House rules.

The findings are certain to raise questions of whether Rangel, a New York Democrat, can continue as Ways and Means Committee chairman in an election year. Democrats took over the House in 2006 on a campaign promise to “end a culture of corruption” in Congress that they blamed on 12 years of Republican rule.

The ethics panel also ended another widespread investigation Thursday, saying it found no violations of House rules by seven lawmakers who steered government money and projects and contracts to favored companies that donated to their re-election campaigns.

A copy of the letters and an accompanying report on them were obtained by The Associated Press. All seven – five Democrats and two Republicans – are or were senior members of the House Appropriations Committee.

The most prominent of the them was the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., the former chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee who died earlier this month. The other six lawmakers exonerated in that probe are Reps. Norman Dicks, D-Wash.; Jim Moran, D-Va.; Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio; Peter Visclosky, D-Ind.; Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan.; and C.W. “Bill” Young, R-Fla.

The appropriations went to companies represented by a now-defunct lobbying firm known as PMA Group – formerly Paul Magliocchetti Associates.

The Justice Department was conducting an investigation of its own into PMA. It is unclear whether that inquiry is still alive. At one point, a federal grand jury subpoenaed documents from Visclosky’s office, campaign committees and some of his employees. The chief of staff for the Indiana Democrat resigned after the subpoenas were delivered.

The House committee’s report said its investigators “found no evidence” that members or their official staffs considered or sought contributions in return for appropriations.

The committee also found that PMA used “strong-arm” tactics, threatening to withdraw financial support or encourage businesses to leave a member’s district if the lawmaker opposed appropriations to companies represented by the firm.

“In these instances, members and their staff refused to change their positions and, in one case, notified the (ethics) committee,” the report said.

In the Rangel case, the ethics committee exonerated five other members of the Congressional Black Caucus who also were on the 2007 and 2008 trips to Antigua and St. Maarten but told them they will have to pay the costs of them.

The panel’s report did not include any formal charges that could have brought a more serious censure against Rangel. However, it’s not the end of his ethics problems.

The panel, formally the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is still investigating Rangel’s use of official stationery to raise money for a college center to be named after him and incomplete financial disclosures that omitted some income and assets, including rent he received from a vacation home in the Dominican Republic.

Rangel’s staff knew that corporate money paid for the Caribbean trips, the committee said. The panel said Rangel should have known because he’s responsible for actions based on what his staff knew, but it added that investigators could not determine exactly what he did know.

“Common sense dictates that members of Congress should not be held responsible for what could be the wrongdoing or mistakes or errors of staff unless there’s reason to believe that member knew or should have known, and there is nothing in the record to indicate the latter,” Rangel said at a news conference Thursday evening.

House members on the trips who didn’t know about the corporate financing, according to the committee, were Reps. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Yvette Clarke of New York, Donald Payne of New Jersey, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick of Michigan and Donna Christensen, the nonvoting delegate from the Virgin Islands.

The ethics committee said the five relied on false information from the listed official sponsors of the trips, the Carib News, a New York newspaper, and the Carib News Foundation.

Peter Flaherty of the National Legal and Policy Center, an ethics watchdog group, attended the 2008 conference in St. Maarten and filed an ethics complaint that listed companies that had signs and materials at the event. He said Citigroup, Pfizer, American Airlines, AT&T, Verizon, Macy’s, and IBM were among them.

While lawmakers have attended the Caribbean conferences for many years, the House adopted stricter travel rules before the 2007 and 2008 trips.

Who runs the Ways and Means Committee is especially important this year, when Democrats are trying to overhaul the nation’s health care system and Congress has to decide what to do about billions of dollars in tax cuts Americans at every income level have enjoyed for a decade but are due to expire in December.

Less than two hours before the ethics panel’s findings were first reported by AP, Rangel attended President Barack Obama’s daylong summit on health care. The government already covers about half of Americans’ health care costs, mostly through programs that originated in or came through the committee Rangel chairs.

Democrats want to extend the tax cuts for middle- and low-income families, including an expanded child tax credit, while raising taxes on families making more than $250,000. They would allow the top income tax rate to rise from 35 percent to 39.6 percent, the level it was before former President George W. Bush’s tax cuts.

Rangel, 79, was first elected to the House in 1970 from New York’s Harlem district, defeating Adam Clayton Powell Jr., at the time the most prominent black politician in the country.