In another era, Rep. Charles Rangel’s alleged ethical lapses – unpaid taxes, questionable use of rent-controlled apartments, and pay-to-play fundraising – might have slipped through the House ethics process with no consequence.
The system was secret and largely unaccountable – a virtual black box of incumbent protection, critics said. But a new, independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), launched in 2008, is exposing lawmakers and their system of self-policing to unprecedented to public scrutiny.
The Rangel trial, which opens July 29, will be its highest profile test since Democrats took back the House in 2006 on a pledge to clean and “drain the swamp.” Congressman Rangel, former chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, requested in September 2008 that the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, formally launch an investigation into the allegations against him in the press. He says that he expects to be vindicated.
The House ethics panel took nearly two years before charging Rangel with violating ethical standards, which the panel has yet to specify. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California, who chairs the panel, will head an eight-member, bipartisan adjudicatory subcommittee.
Some public interest groups say that House members would not have taken this case so far against one of their own without pressure from outside groups.
On Feb. 26, 2010, the independent Office of Congressional Ethics released a 329-page report documenting that Rangel had knowingly accepted corporate-sponsored travel to the Caribbean in violation of Houses rules. In response, the House ethics panel “admonished” Rangel.
In the past, that 329-page report would have remained secret. But the independent OCE is required to released such referrals to the public even if they do not result in formal action against the member. Last month, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D) of Ohio and 19 other members of the Congressional Black Caucus introduced a House resolution to ban the release of such OCE reports.
“OCE is currently the accuser, judge, and jury. This isn’t the case in the American justice system, and it shouldn’t be so in Congress,” she said in a June 3 statement. The resolution would “prohibit unwarranted and premature publication of OCE’s reports and findings that detail alleged allegations associated with violations.”
Ethics watchdog groups caution that such a backlash would undermine the clout of the OCE and set ethics reform back in the House.
“The Office of Congressional Ethics has forced the ethics committee to take action, because they know that if they don’t these reports will be made public,” says Lisa Gilbert, Democracy Advocate for US PIRG. “There’s now a risk that it might be neutered.”