making local government more ethical

Rep. Charles Rangel and How to Be Above the Past, Appearances of Impropriety, and Annoying Things Like That

Talk about the appearance of impropriety is, as Congressman Charles B. Rangel of New York is quoted in a recent New York Times article as saying, “annoying.” Why should there be anything more than a decision of his peerless peers on the House Ethics Committee, guilty or not guilty? Appearances of propriety are not for someone of Rep. Rangel’s ilk.

A determination in his favor by the House Ethics Committee would, Rangel feels, require a public apology from the Washington Post for writing unfavorably about his use of congressional stationery to solicit contributions for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. The Post also reported that Rep. Rangel has approached, and obtained large contributions to the Center, from individuals and businesses with interests before the House Ways and Means Committee, which he chairs. He also obtained two grants, totalling $690,500, from HUD to renovate a building in his district for the Center. It's hard to find more appearances of impropriety in a single matter than in this one.

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More annoying even than talk of an appearance of impropriety is talk about responsibility for past conduct.  The New York Times also caught Rangel having four rent-stabilized apartments in a luxury apartment building, reporting that Rep. Rangel did acknowledge having used one of these apartments as a campaign office, which “presents an issue,” since such apartments may only be used as a primary residence.  “But he said that his decision to give up that apartment made the issue obsolete.” History is history after all. A powerful congressman is not responsible for what he has done in the past. Water over the dam, and all that. (And those other three apartments? They're okay, he says, because they're adjacent, so his family does use all three as a primary residence, just like your average rent-stabilized apartment dweller who lacks the proper connections and chutzpah. Click here for an article about how others in the same development fare.)

The appearance of impropriety here is annoying because it is so certain.  The past here is obsolete because the congressman’s conduct was so certainly wrong, that even he had to partially admit it.

The bottom line is that Rangel is simply too powerful, and is owed too much for all the good he has done, to deal responsibly with government ethics issues. It is unlikely that any slap on the hand by the House Ethics Committee will change his approach to public service. He is setting a poor example for the future students at his Center. But don't worry. This case study won't appear in their curriculum.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics