The House ethics committee says Rep. Charles Rangel's aides tried at least three times to show him that his Caribbean trips had corporate sponsors, but he denies seeing any of the written communications.
The ethics committee report released Friday is important in determining how aware Rangel was that he was receiving corporate gifts. The powerful Ways and Means Committee chairman says he did nothing wrong because his staff never told him about corporate sponsors.
The report says investigators could not determine whether Rangel, D-N.Y., saw two staff memos to him in 2008 and a letter addressed to him in 2007.
Rangel refuses to step aside as top House tax writer because of the report, which accuses him of violating rules governing gifts that lawmakers can accept.
Rangel said Friday he won't step down as chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee despite being admonished for violating rules by letting corporations pay for his Caribbean trips.
Rangel asserted that that the ethics report "exonerates" him because it says there is no evidence that he knew the trips were sponsored by corporations. The report said his staff knew who paid for the trips.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sidestepped a question on the New York Democrat's fate while noting that Rangel remains under investigation on various other alleged ethics lapses. "We'll just see what happens next," Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters.
Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., became the first Democrat to suggest that Rangel should give up chairmanship of the committee, which originates not only tax laws but also benefit programs that now pay nearly half the costs for Americans' health care.
Taylor told reporters Rangel should "either step down or step aside until this is resolved." Taylor is one of the most conservative Democrats in the House. Rangel, who represents Harlem, is one of the most liberal.
Multiple ethics investigations surrounding Rangel come at a difficult time for Democrats as they seek to revive their stalled health care initiative and as they face likely midterm election losses.
Republicans have been demanding that Democrats replace Rangel since investigations began last year.
The ethics panel accused Rangel on Thursday of violating House gift rules by accepting corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008. The committee said it couldn't determine whether he knew about the financing, but found that his staff did — and concluded Rangel was responsible for learning the truth.
Rangel said he truly doesn't understand why the committee admonished him.
Asked by reporters if he planned to stay on as committee chairman in light of the ethics report, Rangel responded: "Why don't you ask me am I'm going to stay chairman of the committee in light of the fact that we're expecting heavy snow in New York?" He said that would be just as relevant.
Pelosi said she hadn't read the ethics panel's report, only its press release summarizing its finding. She said she wanted to read it before commenting more fully.
"There's more to Mr. Rangel's situation and we look forward to hearing from Mr. Rangel on that," she said.
Still looming is a much larger ethics investigation that focuses in part on Rangel's use of official stationery to raise money for a college center in his name and also his belated financial disclosure of hundreds of thousands of dollars in previously unreported assets.
As the ethics committee was finalizing its report on Thursday, Rangel was attending President Barack Obama's bipartisan summit in an attempt to rescue the party's health care bill. His committee is likely to play a pivotal role in any final health care measure that might emerge from Congress.
The panel's report did not include any formal charges that could have brought a more serious censure against Rangel.
"I'm glad for the wording of it because clearly the wording exonerates me," Rangel said.
He said he didn't even have "constructive knowledge" of the corporate sponsorship of the trips. "So I think it's an issue of the ethics committee's ruling, as it applies to members of Congress, certainly not one that I would step aside for," he said.
Pelosi was asked whether Rangel's assertion that he didn't know who paid for the trips even though his staff did amounted to hair-splitting.
"No. I think that every member is entitled to have his day before the ethics committee. They have said he did not knowingly violate the rules. Again if this were the end of it that would be one thing but there is obviously more to come and we'll see what happens with that.
"I think it's quite a statement to hold members accountable for what their staffs knew. I'll be interested to see how that reverberates," she added.
The ethics panel, the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct, exonerated five other members of the Congressional Black Caucus who also were on the 2007 and 2008 trips to conferences in Antigua and St. Maarten. The panel said all members on the trip would have to pay the costs.
House members on the trips who didn't know about the corporate financing, according to the committee, were Democratic 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.
In addition to its role in shaping health care legislation, the Ways and Means panel has a crucial say in deciding what to do about billions of dollars in tax cuts Americans at every income level have enjoyed for a decade — but are due to expire in December.
In the remaining investigations, Rangel's unreported assets included a federal credit union account worth between $250,001 and $500,000; a Merrill Lynch account valued between $250,000 and $500,000; tens of thousands of dollars in municipal bonds and $30,000 to $100,000 in rent from a multifamily brownstone building in New York.
Rangel is also being separately investigated for an alleged failure to pay federal taxes on rental income from a Dominican villa and on his use in New York of apartments provided by a Manhattan developer.
The ethics committee said the five traveling House members relied on false information from the listed official sponsors of the trips, the Carib News, a New York newspaper, and the Carib News Foundation.
Peter Flaherty of the National Legal and Policy Center, an ethics watchdog group, attended the 2008 conference in St. Maarten and filed an ethics complaint that listed companies that had signs and materials at the event. He said Citigroup, Pfizer, American Airlines, AT&T, Verizon, Macy's, and IBM were among them.
While lawmakers have attended the Caribbean conferences for many years, the House adopted stricter travel rules before the 2007 and 2008 trips.
Rangel, 79, 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 and one with his own ethics problems.
Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher and Alan Fram contributed to this report.
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