WASHINGTON – Rep. Charles Rangel, the most powerful tax-writing lawmaker in Congress and a 40-year veteran of Capitol Hill, acknowledged Thursday that an ethics panel has accused him of accepting corporate money for Caribbean trips in violation of House rules.
The panel exonerated five other members of the Congressional Black Caucus who also were on the 2007 and 2008 trips to Antigua and St. Martin but told them they will have to pay for the trips.
The findings are certain to raise questions of whether Rangel, a New York Democrat, can continue as Ways and Means Committee chairman in an election year. Democrats took over the House in 2006 on a campaign promise to "end a culture of corruption" in Congress that they blamed on 12 years of Republican rule.
The ethics panel also ended another widespread investigation Thursday, saying if found no violations of House rules by six lawmakers who steered government money and projects and contracts to favored companies that had donated to their re-election campaigns.
A copy of the letters and an accompanying report on them were obtained by The Associated Press. All six — four Democrats and two Republicans — are or were senior members of the House Appropriations Committee.
The most prominent of the them was the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., the former chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee who died earlier this month. The other five lawmakers exonerated in that probe are Reps. Norman Dicks, D-Wash.; Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio; Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan. and C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Fla.
In the Rangel case, the ethics committee's report did not include any formal charges that could have brought him a more serious censure against the 79-year-old New York Democrat. However, it's not the end of his ethics problems.
The panel, formally the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is still investigating Rangel's use of official stationery to raise money for a college center to be named after him and incomplete financial disclosures that omitted some income and assets, including rent he received from a vacation home in the Dominican Republic.
Rangel's staff knew that corporate money paid for the Caribbean trips, the committee said, but it could not determine whether Rangel's aides told him about it.
Those who did not know about the corporate financing, according to the committee, were Reps. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Yvette Clarke of New York, Donald Payne of New Jersey, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick of Michigan and Donna Christensen, the nonvoting delegate from the Virgin Islands.
"Common sense dictates that members of Congress should not be held responsible for what could be the wrongdoing or mistakes or errors of staff unless there's reason to believe that member knew or should have known, and there is nothing in the record to indicate the latter," Rangel said at a hastily called evening news conference Thursday evening.
Who chairs the Ways and Means Committee is especially important this year, when Democrats are trying to overhaul the nation's health care system and Congress has to decide what to do about billions of dollars in tax cuts Americans at every income have enjoyed for a decade but are due to expire in December.
Less than two hours before the ethics panel's findings were first reported by the AP, Rangel had attended President Barack Obama's daylong summit on health care. The government already covers about half Americans' health care costs, mostly through programs that originated in or came through the committee Rangel chairs.
Democrats want to extend the tax cuts for middle- and low-income families, including an expanded child tax credit, while raising taxes on families making more than $250,000. They would allow the top income tax rate to rise from 35 percent to 39.6 percent, the level it was before former President George W. Bush's tax cuts.
Rangel was first elected to the House in 1970 from New York's Harlem district, defeating Adam Clayton Powell Jr., at the time the most prominent black politician in the country.
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