December 7, 2010

DAVID B. OFFER: Rangel’s failure to be bowed by censure, and Pingree’s vote, sad

The saddest thing about the censure of Charlie Rangel last week was not that the congressman from New York was humiliated by his colleagues in the House of Representatives.

It was that he was not humiliated.

Worse yet, Rangel was right when he told the House that “those in the past have done far more harm to the reputation of this body than I” but received lesser punishment.

Rangel didn’t grasp the irony of his statement and neither did 146 other representatives who voted for an amendment to reprimand Rangel instead of censuring him.

The fact that others have acted with even worse ethics is a sorry defense.

Unfortunately, Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, was one of those 146 who voted for Rangel to be reprimanded, not censured. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-2nd District, joined the 267 representatives who insisted on censure.

In the insider language of Congress, a reprimand is a slap on the wrist. A censure is more like a spanking — and unless a member is convicted of a crime and sent to prison, censure is about as bad it gets.

“I voted for censuring him today because members of Congress must be beyond reproach and hold themselves to the highest ethical standards,” Michaud said in a statement released after the House vote.

After the proposal for leniency was rejected, Pingree also voted for censure, which passed, 333 to 79.

Willy Ritch, a policy adviser and communications director for Pingree, said she supported the lesser penalty for Rangel because — as Rangel said — in the past the House had not censured members for similar offenses. Pingree’s staff prepared a report arguing that “there is no evidence that Rangel purposely and knowingly violated the law or House rules,” that he did not lie to the House Ethics Committee and that he was “not corrupt.”

Apparently that lowered the bar enough in Pingree’s opinion that even a congressman who failed to pay taxes on his beach home in the Caribbean could slither under it.

After Speaker Nancy Pelosi read the resolution censuring him — it also called for him to pay the taxes he owed — Rangel called the action a “very, very, very political vote.”

“I leave here knowing that everyone knows I’m an honest guy,” Rangel said.

Sorry, Charlie. Not everyone agrees, and it’s not politics when 333 of your colleagues think you have brought dishonor to the institution in which they serve.

Even Mainers who have not followed every nuance in the long-running investigation into Rangel’s affairs are aware that he stormed out of an Ethics Committee hearing two weeks ago, claiming that he did not have enough time or money to defend himself.

Despite having had months to prepare for the hearing, Rangel showed up without a lawyer and claimed he was too broke to hire one.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” Rangel told the committee, claiming he had already spent $2 million on lawyers and needed time to raise another $1 million to retain new counsel for the hearing.

“I fought in wars, I love this Congress, I love this country,” Rangel said. “I think I’m entitled” to more time to set up a legal defense fund.

Rangel did, indeed, serve honorably during the Korean war, but as honest veterans will acknowledge, nothing in that service excuses dishonorable conduct after being discharged.

He sought to characterize the charges against him — using his congressional office to solicit donations for a local college, concealing more than $500,000 in assets on a required disclosure form, and failing to pay income taxes — as relatively minor, unintentional technical violations.

That would be a feeble excuse for a congressional neophyte. It’s absurd for a man who has spent 40 years in Congress and headed the Ways and Means Committee that writes the nation’s tax laws.

Rangel said using his congressional staff and stationery to raise funds for the college was a minor matter — nothing more than grabbing the wrong letterhead for a few fundraising letters.

Not exactly. Rangel used his office and his staff to seek donations from corporations that did business with his committee, and he supported a tax loophole worth hundreds of millions of dollars for an oil company at the same time he was asking for a $1 million contribution from its top executive.

Rangel may not call that corrupt, and Pingree may not think it merits censure. I disagree.

The dismal record of Congress in policing the ethics of its members can be found in the fact that the House has censured only 23 members, including Rangel, in more than 200 years. The last two, in 1983 involved sexual misconduct with teenage House pages. The first, in 1832, was for insulting the speaker of the House.

How about insulting the entire country?

Americans have the right to hold members of Congress to a standard higher than not being corrupt, not being convicted of crimes. Representatives and senators should be examples of the best conduct, not able to slip under the bar.

It was not “very, very, very political” for the House of Representatives to censure Charlie Rangel. It was sad that standards are so low that there was ever a question.

David B. Offer is the retired executive editor of the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel. E-mail

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