To rebut a lengthy list of alleged ethical misdeeds, Rep. Charles Rangel is trotting out this three-way defense: I didn't do it. I did it, but was inattentive. Others lawmakers were allowed to do the same thing without penalty.
It's an approach that nervous Democrats are watching closely in one of the most politically explosive cases in years.
Should it go to a public trial this fall, smack in the middle of the election season, and should his defense fall short, that won't help Democratic candidates forced to defend their party's ethics against Republican campaign attacks.
The GOP already is demanding that specific Democratic candidates give up contributions provided by Rangel's political organizations, and about a half-dozen Democrats have asked the 20-term lawmaker to resign.
He's facing 13 counts of wrongdoing, including providing official favors in return for donations, hiding income and assets, and failing to pay taxes.
If Rangel's predicament wasn't bad enough for Democrats, there's an added complication on the ethics front: Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., also may face an ethics trial this fall on allegations of improperly trying to help a bank, where her husband owned stock, that was seeking a federal bailout.
People familiar with the Waters investigation, who were not authorized to be quoted about charges before they are made public, say the allegations could be announced this coming week.
Rangel, 80, is a former chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. Waters, 71, is a prominent member of the House Financial Services Committee. Both have influential roles in matters affecting voters' pocketbooks — thereby linking the important issues of congressional ethics and the economy.
A good portion of the Rangel case revolves around his soliciting donations — from corporate fat cats and foundations — to the Rangel Center at City College of New York, founded to support academic programs in public service.
"The undisputed evidence in the record ... is that Congressman Rangel did not dispense any political favors, that he did not intentionally violate any law, rule or regulation, and that he did not misuse his public office for private gain," according to a written statement prepared by Rangel's legal team and submitted to the ethics panel that conducted a two-year investigation of his conduct.
The statement said Rangel didn't "target for solicitation foundations, corporations or individuals with business before the Ways and Means Committee, nor did he offer or provide preferential treatment or favors to potential contributors."
It acknowledged that Rangel "did not devote sufficient personal attention to the preparation of his original annual financial disclosures." Hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets and income were reported years after they should have been. The congressman blamed his former chief of staff for many of the errors.
Rangel's voluntary revisions on those forms "attest to his sincere regret, good faith and acceptance of responsibility for the mistakes that were made in his financial disclosures," the defense statement said.
Rangel acknowledged his failure to pay taxes on rental income from his unit in the Punta Cana resort in the Dominican Republic. He filed amendments, paid the taxes and "has done everything within his power to fulfill his legal obligations," the statement said.
Rangel said he wasn't the only member of Congress to donate papers to a college center and raise money for it from corporate donors.
He cited Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who lent his name to fundraising for a center at the University of Louisville. He said the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., had a similar program, and so did other former members of the House and Senate.
Waters came under scrutiny after former Treasury Department officials said she helped arrange a meeting between regulators and executives at Boston-based OneUnited Bank without mentioning her husband's financial ties to the institution.
Her husband, Sidney Williams, held at least $250,000 in the bank's stock and previously had served on its board. Waters' spokesman has said Williams was no longer on the board when the meeting was arranged.
Waters has said the National Bankers Association, a trade group, requested the meeting. She defended her role in assisting minority-owned banks in the midst of the nation's financial meltdown and dismissed suggestions she used her influence to steer government aid to the bank.
"I am confident that as the investigation moves forward the panel will discover that there are no facts to support allegations that I have acted improperly," Waters said in a prior statement.
The committee unanimously voted to establish an investigative subcommittee to gather evidence and determine whether Waters violated standards of conduct.
House ethics committee: http://ethics.house.gov/
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