Spinning for a sleazeball



The Winter Olympics came to a close on Sunday with Nancy Pelosi winning the gold medal for verbal gymnastics.

As an ABC News guest, the House speaker twisted and spun and gyrated every which way in her valiant (albeit pitiful) attempt to defend her good friend, the Democratic albatross who epitomizes Washington arrogance and corruption, veteran New York congressman Charles Rangel.

If Pelosi and the House Democrats have a death wish, if they want to jeopardize their party majority in the November elections, then defending Rangel - and keeping him ensconced as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee - should help seal the deal. Swing-voting independents are ticked off at Washington, and what better way to direct their ire at the incumbent party than to have the House's Democratic leader spin for a sleazeball?

Last Friday, the House Ethics Committee, after 18 months of study, finally issued its first thumbs-down verdict on Rangel. Odds are, this report won't be the last, given Rangel's track record of helping himself to various government goodies. The ethics panel slapped him down for accepting corporate-funded trips to the Carribean (the corporations funneled the money through a charity) - a direct violation of House rules. Rangel says he didn't know what was going on, but the Democratic baron says that kind of thing all the time. To wit:

Rangel, who, as Ways and Means chairman, helps write our tax policies, has apparently spent years hiding much of his own income from the tax man. He failed to report, on required congressional disclosure forms, that he owned income-generating properties in New York, New Jersey, Florida, and the Dominican Republic. He also failed to report, on those financial forms, that he had two bank accounts with a combined value as high as a million bucks. He failed to report his dividend income from other investments, and he failed to report what he pocketed from the sale of a Harlem townhouse, not to mention the rental income he had made off that townhouse prior to sale. And he failed to pay taxes on rental income from that villa in the Dominican Republic.

This is the kind of material that the Ethics Committee is still scrutinizing, and we know about it because Rangel himself has already admitted: oops, I must've inadvertently forgotten to fully fill out those disclosure forms. Prodded by the committee investigation, he spent some time last year revising the forms - bringing them up to date, as it were.

Presumably, the ethics panel is also looking at Rangel's deal with a particular oil corporation, in which the firm reportedly agreed to cough up a million bucks for an institute that is coincidentally called The Charles Rangel Public Policy Center - and, in return, Rangel reportedly pulled strings in Congress to protect a tax loophole beneficial to the firm.

Rangel is already a burden to the Democrats, but, given the prospect of further ethics probe verdicts, he is destined to become their ball and chain, the ultimate symbol of insider entitlement and corruption in a tough election year. He's like a bad tooth that will only get worse - unless Nancy Pelosi yanks it now by sending a clear message that such sleaze will not be tolerated.

She can do that only by removing Rangel from his post as Ways and Means chairman. Indeed, seven House Democrats are now demanding that Rangel step down. (Here's Arizona congresswoman Ann Fitzpatrick, announcing yesterday that she intends to return Rangel's donations to her '10 campaign: "The bipartisan ethics committee has found that Congressman Rangel did not live up to the standards members owe to their constituents with this matter and continues to look into other serious breaches. While I deeply respect his lifetime of service as a soldier and as a U.S. representative, I can no longer accept his support.")

But Pelosi still prefers to play the verbal gymnast. On the ABC Sunday morning show, she was asked about Rangel. It was suggested that perhaps this was an opportune time to take away his gavel. Her reply: "Why don't we just give him a chance to hear the independent, bipartisan (committee)? They work very hard to reach their conclusions. Obviously, there's more to come here...The fact is, is that what Mr. Rangel has been admonished for is not good. It was a violation of the rules of the House. It was not something that jeopardized the country in any way. So it remains to be seen what the rest of the work of the committee is." (Italics are mine.)

Whatever happened to Pelosi's strict standards of behavior?

Four years ago, she promised to "drain the swamp" and give us "the most ethical Congress in history," thereby suggesting that she would have zero tolerance for corruption. But now - perhaps out of loyalty to Rangel, perhaps seeking to avoid an escalation of tensions with the Congressional Black Caucus at a time when she's tallying votes for health care reform - she has considerably loosened her criteria. Now, apparently, all kinds of bad behavior is perfectly acceptable as long as it hasn't "jeopardized the country in any way."

So what does that mean? She now has a national security standard for sleaze? Rangel keeps his gavel as long as he didn't rent his Dominican Republic villa to members of al Qaeda?

Pelosi might be wise to remember what happened to a previous Democratic Ways and Means baron, Dan Rostenkowski. He was an old bull who abused all kinds of congressional privileges, only to be tolerated and indulged by the Democratic leaders. He became the face of Washington decadence in the congressional elections of 1994. And we all know what happened to the House Democrats in 1994.


I understand that the comments section was shut down for roughly three hours today. My bad. I inadvertently zapped the system by putting a no-no word into the headline. In any event, I've been told that full ranting and ruminating rights are now restored. Thanks for doing that, Bob.