Mark Hemingway: Congressmen like Rangel are subject to a different standard

On Thursday, the unthinkable happened. The famously gutless House of Representatives Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, aka House ethics committee, actually announced it would try Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., on corruption charges. I'm sad to say that this is progress.

Suppose a congressman were to toss a dead body from the press gallery onto the floor of the House while throwing around lobbyist cash like confetti and laughing like a hyena on C-SPAN. The committee would probably get around to admonishing this congressman at about the time hell became a skating rink for disadvantaged youth. I'm sure Congress' total inability to police itself is in no way related to the fact that congressional approval is at 11 percent, the lowest ever recorded.

Let's look at what Rangel did before House ethics committee finally got around to trying him, shall we?

July 2008: The New York Times reports that Rangel was illegally using three rent-controlled apartments provided by a company owned in part by a campaign donor. The difference between what Rangel paid in rent and the market value of the apartments amounted to an illegal donation of more than $30,000 a year.

August 2008: The New York Post reports that Rangel's tax filings showed no income on his Caribbean villa, even though it was being rented out. Shortly afterward, Rangel paid back taxes of $10,800 owed on $75,000 in rental income.

September 2008: The House ethics committee announces an investigation of Rangel's tax avoidance and illegal use of apartments — and according to CBS, “questionable storage of a late-model Mercedes Benz in the House [of Representatives] garage.” The spaces are valued at $290 a month and must be reported to the IRS.

November 2008: The New York Times reports Rangel took a “homestead” tax break on his house in Washington while at the same time occupying the four rent-controlled apartments in New York, “possibly violating laws and regulations in both cases.”

November 2008: Congressional Republicans ask the House ethics committee to look into Rangel's defense of a tax loophole for a company that had donated $1 million to the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service. Rangel had opposed the same loophole in 2004.

May 2009: The National Legal and Policy Foundation files an ethics complaint against Rangel for taking trips to the Caribbean sponsored by a nonprofit foundation funded by a number of corporations with business before the House Ways and Means Committee, which Rangel chaired.

August 2009: Rangel amends his 2007 financial disclosure form to declare more than $500,000 in unreported assets, including significant amounts of stock. Rangel also failed to pay taxes on two properties in New Jersey.

Believe it or not, this a very partial list of his offenses. The Sunlight Foundation documented “28 instances in which Rangel omitted assets worth between $239,026 and $831,000 that were either purchased, sold, or held from his financial disclosures.”

Despite all this, the House ethics committee tried to make the charges go away quietly. Reports have it that charges were filed only after settlement talks with Rangel's lawyer broke down.

Supposedly, the terms of the settlement would have included Rangel making a public apology as a condition for closing the case — how unreasonable! A source sympathetic to Rangel tells Politico there's still a chance things might get settled before the trial.

When Rangel eventually retires — not to a jail cell, but to a Caribbean villa and a fat government pension — you can thank the House ethics committee. The message is clear: There's equal justice under the law, and then there is the den of iniquity that is Congress.

Mark Hemingway is an editorial page staff writer for The Washington Examiner. He can be reached at

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