Unraveling Rangel

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It’s been interesting to watch the stories that have described multiple ethics problems for Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and someone identified by The Hill as the top fundraiser for House Democrats. The Washington Post seems to have kicked things off with a story on July 14 saying that Rangel used official House stationary to solicit big donations for his Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. There followed a series of revelations that he wasn’t properly declaring income on a vacation property he owned in the Dominican Republic; that he benefited from having four rent controlled apartments (one of which he used as an office) in violation of New York City statutes; that he used taxpayer funds to lease an expensive car; that he had all but abandoned a car he owns, a Mercedes, in the House parking garage; that he inappropriately claimed a small tax deduction for having a primary residence in Washington, D.C., (his primary residence is in New York, leaving him ineligible for the D.C. tax break) and he used his campaign committee to funnel $80,000 to his son for performing little or no work on a Web site. The New York Times report that Rangel killed a retroactive tax increase for a big donor to his Center for Public Service is the latest revelation, but it’s one of about a half dozen news organizations (the Washington Post, the New York Post, Politico, and WCBS-TV being the others) that have been following the story. I would suggest looking at Glenn Reynold’s archives to follow the story, but there are so many links that it’s hard to keep up with (that’s due to the extent of Rangel’s troubles, and is not fault of Reynolds).

A few thoughts on the stories we’ve seen to date:

Federal disclosures, some of which are now easily accessible online so that any member of the public can get to them, have played a role in some of the stories. Information from Rangel’s personal financial disclosure forms, for example, featured in the stories about his vacation home (Center for Responsive Politics puts those online in a digitized format). CRP also puts up campaign committee expenditures–for both PACs and congressional campaigns–those payments featured in Politico’s story on Rangel using campaign cash to benefit his son’s company. Finding information about the rental car (which members can use a portion of their House office expenses to lease) isn’t so easy. Some House office expense data is available online — National Taxpayers Union puts it out (it’s current through 2005). But NTU doesn’t provide information on rental car expenses. You can find them buried in this report — Rangel’s car payments for his DeVille are on page 1087 of the 1188 page black and white PDF.

Shoe leather was important. It’s pretty clear from reading that stories that the federal disclosures were just a part of the picture (and in some stories, no part at all). You can’t get photos of Rangel lying out on a beach chair in front of his vacation property in the Dominican Republic from schedule III of a financial disclosure form. A lot of news organizations have invested resources to dig into Rangel. Which, given the financial strain the news industry is operating under, makes me wonder…

Why Rangel? And why now? He’s a powerful member with ties to two cities with competitive media markets, but that was also true in 2007, 2006 and so on. I’m not complaining–I think every member should be scrutinized in the same way. It will be interesting to see how long reporters stick with this.