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Rangel Probe Awaits New Ethics Chair

By Ben Pershing

Next week, Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) will play a key role in shaping the first major legislative initiative of the Obama administration, as his committee is set to write the tax portion of the president-elect's massive economic stimulus bill. Working in concert with a Democratic White House, Rangel is assured in the short term of a seat at the top table as his panel takes the lead on a host of important issues. But Rangel's long-term fate in Congress may rest in the hands of another committee chairman -- one who hasn't been named yet.

When the 110th Congress was gaveled to a close on Jan. 3, one of the biggest pieces of unfinished business was the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct's probe of Rangel, which began in September and was then expanded in December to encompass more issues. The panel is examining a host of allegations against the New Yorker, including his fundraising practices for an education center that bears his name, his use of rent-controlled apartments in Manhattan and his financing arrangements and property tax payments on a villa in the Dominican Republic.

Despite pressure to do so, the ethics committee was not able to finish the Rangel probe before the 110th Congress ended, a fact that was confirmed in the panel's newly-released "Summary of Activities" for the last two years. The committee now has to vote to continue the investigation, but because Ethics Chairman Gene Green (D-Texas) has stepped down from his post, that vote won't happen until Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) names a new chairman.

When will that be? A Democratic leadership aide says Pelosi will announce her choice "in the coming days," which likely means this week or next.

The Rangel probe was one of five formal investigations initiated or continued by the committee in the 110th Congress; the others were of Reps. William Jefferson (D-La.), Bob Filner (D-Calif.), Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) and Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.). Renzi and Fossella both retired from Congress, Jefferson lost his reelection bid and the Filner investigation ended in December 2007 with no punishment, though the committee did find that Filner "demonstrated poor judgment" in his run-in with a baggage claim worker at Dulles Airport.

More intriguingly, the panel's summary also states the committee began or continued informal investigations of 14 other House members and three House employees. Of those probes, seven were "resolved during the 110th Congress without the empanelment of an investigative subcommittee or other formal action by the Committee, and the remaining matters are still pending." The report gives no hint as to the identities of those members or aides still under the microscope, and we may never know who they are/were unless the committee takes some formal public steps in their investigations.

Beyond those probes, the report notes that the committee reviewed more than 2,400 requests for travel during the 110th Congress and prepared more than 1,000 "private advisory opinions," which members and aides can request to ensure that their activities -- including fundraising, accepting gifts and earning outside income -- are allowed under House rules.

So the next ethics chair will have his or her hands full, with multiple investigations to continue as well as plenty of day-to-day work. But the Rangel probe will likely prove to be the politically trickiest task, given the importance of Rangel's position, his close relationship with Pelosi and other senior Democrats, and the extent to which Republicans -- eager to take down a big target -- will be watching for any signs of a coverup or laxity. The investigation has already prompted some partisan squabbling, and that was with the widely-respected Green serving as chairman. Rangel will have a lot on his plate in the coming months, but the member chosen to sit in judgment of him may have even more.

By Ben Pershing  |  January 14, 2009; 12:35 PM ET
Categories:  Ethics and Rules , House  
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