Is Charles Rangel corrupt?

New York Rep. Charles Rangel insists he failed to pay taxes on rental income and improperly solicited donations out of ignorance, not corrupt motives.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Rep. Charles Rangel sits in his ethics hearing before the House Adjudicatory subcommittee Thursday on Capitol Hill.

Yes, Rep. Charles Rangel has been found guilty of ethics violations by a House ethics panel. But does that mean he was corrupt?

It’s a question that appears to matter quite a bit to Rep. Rangel (D) of New York himself. And well it might – if the public at large begins to think of him as corrupt and sleazy, as opposed to sloppy and careless, his legacy will be even more diminished after decades of public service.

And it perhaps he would find it harder to look at himself in the mirror in the morning.

That is why at his punishment hearing on Tuesday Rangel admitted that he had done wrong in such matters as failing to pay taxes on rental income earned from his Dominican Republic beach villa, and soliciting donations for the Charles Rangel Center for Public Service – but that his actions had been inadvertent.

“I had no intent to evade or avoid the law,” Rangel told a hearing of the full House Ethics Committee.

He hadn’t known the details of his own tax returns, he said. Officials from the City College of New York, site of the Rangel Center, had come to him and suggested that he would be the best person to raise needed cash for the institution, according to Rangel.

In brief remarks to the committee he reminded them that the panel’s own chief counsel, Blake Chisam, under questioning early in the week, had said he saw no evidence of corruption per se in Rangel’s actions.

And he also brought along a character witness – Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, himself a respected veteran of the civil rights movement. Rep. Lewis reminded committee members that Rangel is a decorated Korean War veteran, and that he had walked with Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to try and help win the right to vote for African-Americans.

“My colleagues, I must tell you that Charlie Rangel is a good and decent man. I know this man. I think I know his heart,” said Lewis.

However, ethics panel chief counsel Chisam still recommended that the full committee, and then the full House of Representatives, vote to censure Rangel. That is the most serious punishment short of expulsion the House can mete out.

And some panel members questioned Rangel’s assertion that he is not corrupt. They noted that he had failed to pay taxes on his beach villa for 17 years, and that he indeed reaped personal gain from that, in the form of a lower tax bill.

After all, Rep. James Traficant, the Ohio Democrat expelled from the House in 2002 after felony convictions on bribery and other charges, only failed to pay taxes for two years.

“Failure to pay taxes for 17 years. What is that?” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R) of Texas.

Rangel targeted donors for the Rangel Center who had legislative business before the House Ways and Means Committee, which he chaired at the time, according to Mr. McCaul.

“Is that not corruption?” said McCaul. “I guess it is how you define corruption here. I think reasonable people may disagree on that interpretation.”

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