U.S. House panel says Rangel broke ethics rules

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Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel, once among the most powerful members of Congress, will face a hearing on charges of violating House ethics rules after a panel of his peers formally accused him of wrongdoing Thursday.

For two years, House ethics investigators pored over records of the New York congressman’s travel and record-keeping in response to complaints about corporate-paid trips, the use of several rent-stabilized apartments and other allegations.

Rangel, 80, could face reprimand, censure or expulsion if the House Ethics Committee determines he violated rules. Any such sanction would be subject to a vote of the full House.

Not since 2002, when Congress was investigating Democrat James Traficant of Ohio, has the secretive Ethics Committee convened such a proceeding. Rangel, who has been in Congress for 40 years, is expected to mount a vigorous defense.

“For over two years I’ve been asking them to look at this and to throw out what I believe has no substance,” Rangel told reporters at the Capitol on Thursday. “I don’t have any fear at all, politically or personally, what they come up with.”

The committee appointed a panel to hear his case and said those members would hold a public meeting next week. At some point, the adjudicatory panel will hold a hearing that could last several days as lawmakers decide whether ethics investigators have proved their case. No formal charges have been made public.

Rangel requested the Ethics Committee investigation in July 2008 after published reports concerning corporate-paid trips to the Caribbean, the use of several rent-stabilized apartments in a luxury Harlem building and private fundraising activities that used his office stationery.

A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco) said the committee’s action indicated “that the independent, bipartisan Ethics Committee process is moving forward.”

But the ethics proceeding is being convened in the middle of a Democratic fight to retain control of the House in this fall’s midterm election, and Thursday’s announcement carried potent political overtones. Republicans pounced on the investigation, signaling that it would become part of their election-year message.

Democrats won control of the chamber in 2006 in part because of voter disapproval of Republican ethics scandals, including an investigation of House Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas.

Democrats promised a new approach and implemented stricter ethics rules.

Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, now the Republican leader, said Thursday that the ethics panel’s action “is a sad reminder of Speaker Pelosi’s most glaring broken promise: to ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington.”

In his long career, Rangel rose to one of the most influential positions in Congress: chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. During the lengthy investigation, Rangel grudgingly relinquished that seat in March.

Rangel becomes the first lawmaker to face such a reckoning by his peers since Traficant’s expulsion in 2002. Traficant was a felon, having been convicted of bribery, racketeering, tax violations and other federal charges.

In Thursday’s notice, the Ethics Committee announced the formation of an eight-member “adjudicatory subcommittee” to hear the charges. It will be chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), who is also chairwoman of the Ethics Committee. Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas will be its senior Republican member.

With the ethics cloud surrounding Rangel, several challengers have stepped forward to face him in the Sept. 14 primary. One is Adam Clayton Powell IV, a New York assemblyman and son of the late member of Congress, who had ethics troubles of his own. Rangel defeated the elder Powell in the 1970 primary — three years after Congress refused to seat Powell, who promptly won a special election for his old seat.