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Rangel pleads for mercy as House ethics panel’s chief counsel recommends censure

- Associated Press - Thursday, November 18, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House ethics committee's chief counsel recommended Thursday that Rep. Charles Rangel be censured in connection with the panel's finding that he engaged in improper financial and fundraising conduct.

Chief counsel Blake Chisman called for that punishment, despite the veteran New York Democrat's plea for "a drop of fairness and mercy."

If Mr. Chisam's recommendation is carried out, it would be the most serious punishment short of expulsion that could be meted out by the House. Mr. Chisam and Mr. Rangel argued their positions at a public hearing on sanctions, where the 80-year-old congressman acknowledged making mistakes in handling his finances and said he wasn't there to "retry this case."

He did say he wished the committee would weigh, in considering its vote on punishment, how the House had handled previous cases involving lawmakers who were enriched by activities they undertook that were judged to be in violation of the chamber's rules.

Before Mr. Chisam commenced his remarks, Rep. Jo Bonner, Alabama Republican, told committee colleagues that Mr. Rangel needed only to "look in the mirror to know who to blame" for his predicament.

Mr. Chisam said Mr. Rangel "brought discredit" upon the House and that his actions "served to undermine public confidence in this institution."

The committee was poised to recess for a closed session to discuss the recommendation of censure.

Earlier in the morning, Mr. Rangel, former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, pleaded for "a drop of fairness and mercy" as he braced for likely punishment. The Harlem Democrat, who rarely sticks to a script, released prepared remarks for a House ethics committee hearing that will decide how he should be sanctioned.

The 80-year-old Mr. Rangel was convicted Tuesday on 11 counts of violating House rules. He misused his office in fundraising for a college center named after him, set up a campaign office in a subsidized, residential-only apartment unit, made public a decade of misleading financial statements and failed to pay taxes for 17 years on rental income from a beach villa.

The committee of five members from each party will deliberate after hearing from Mr. Rangel and Mr. Chisam.

"There can be no excuse for my acts of omission," Mr. Rangel said. "I've failed in carrying out my responsibilities. I made numerous mistakes. But corruption and personal enrichment are certainly not part of my mistakes."

Mr. Rangel spoke of his personal agony: "The sky fell down. The nightmare began. Soon after I took the gavel at Ways and Means I have been smeared with allegations of corruption and personal gain. Two years ago I referred these media allegations to the ethics committee, confident that I would be protected from these attacks and false accusations."

He rejected his conviction, saying the committee failed to prove that he had "deviated from his sense of duty to this body and this great country."

Then, he asked for mercy. "I hope my four decades of service merit a sanction that is in keeping with and no greater than House precedents and also contains a drop of fairness and mercy," Mr. Rangel said.

A censure vote is a resolution disapproving a member's conduct. The lawmaker then is escorted to the front of the House chamber, known as the well, by the sergeant-at-arms. While standing before his colleagues, the speaker of the House then issues an oral rebuke.

A lesser reprimand also requires a House vote of disapproval, but without the member appearing in the well.

Mr. Rangel has asked the ethics committee and the public to take into account his four decades of service in the House, where he's tied for fourth in seniority.

Until March, when he relinquished his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, Mr. Rangel wielded great power over tax legislation. He stepped down in March after the ethics committee concluded, in a separate case, that Mr. Rangel improperly allowed corporations to pay for two trips to the Caribbean.

He complained at his ethics trial Monday that the proceeding was unfair because he needed time to obtain new lawyers. Mr. Rangel argued that his former defense team abandoned him after he paid them nearly $2 million — but he could afford no more. The panel rejected his request, and Mr. Rangel walked out of the proceeding.

Mr. Rangel, a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, remains a political kingpin in New York's Harlem neighborhood and is unlikely to resign. He won re-election earlier this month.

His conviction was a fresh setback for Democrats who lost control of the House to the GOP in the midterm elections, providing support for Republican candidates' assertions of bad conduct.

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