This legendary black congressman suffered from allegations about misusing his position as a powerful committee chairman. Questions arose about his travel habits and a seaside property. His displays of wealth ill-represented his poor Harlem constituency.
Is it Charles Rangel, the embattled current chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee? No, but it’s close. It’s Adam Clayton Powell Jr. - the man Mr. Rangel defeated in 1970.
Four decades later, Mr. Rangel is experiencing uncanny parallels to situations that destroyed Mr. Powell’s congressional career. Despite the ignominious circumstances of Mr. Powell’s forced retirement, he remains fondly remembered for his civil rights work and his pre-scandal legislative accomplishments.
History may not be so kind to Mr. Rangel, since he and his colleagues assumed power on a promise to clean up Washington’s “culture of corruption.”
Back in 1967, a congressional investigation alleged that Mr. Powell had misappropriated Education and Labor Committee funds for his personal use. Today, Mr. Rangel is denying doing anything “morally wrong” after official congressional stationery was used to raise millions for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City University of New York. Ethics experts, however, say using House resources to raise money from and for outside entities — especially some of those sources are businesses with matters before his committee such as the recently bailed-out AIG - violates House rules.
Mr. Rangel also sought an earmark of almost $2 million in taxpayer money for the center, which critics call his “Monument to Me.”
Mr. Powell was criticized for flaunting a lavish lifestyle while representing poverty-stricken Harlem neighborhoods. Mr. Rangel, who was recently illegally using a congressional parking garage to store a broken-down Mercedes, leases a Cadillac DeVille at a $777.54 a month expense to taxpayers. Gas for the luxury car, which Mr. Rangel told the New York Times is “one of the bigger Cadillacs. … It’s like an airplane,” is also paid for by taxpayers. When questioned about the car’s opulence, Mr. Rangel said “my constituents appreciate it.”
Mr. Powell took questionable trips to places such as Florida. Mr. Rangel has been taking annual trips to the Caribbean at the expense of corporations, potentially creating conflicts of interest. In 2007, after new ethics rules were passed, he failed to make the necessary disclosures. There are several other trips raising eyebrows.
The Caribbean island of Bimini was Mr. Powell’s resort of choice; Mr. Rangel owns a beachfront villa in the Dominican Republic. It gained attention because Mr. Rangel bought it with a no-interest loan and failed to report or pay taxes on $75,000 in rental income that came from it until it made headlines.
Mr. Rangel rents four rent-controlled apartments at Lenox Terrace in Harlem, one of which was used as a campaign office in violation of state law. They may constitute an illegal gift to the lawmaker from the landlord. Mr. Rangel also undervalued on his congressional disclosure forms a condominium once owned by his wife.
It is troubling when Mr. Rangel pleads ignorance about his tax problems; more so when one considers that he heads the committee tasked with writing the nation’s tax laws.
Mr. Powell was stripped of his committee chairmanship by his Democratic colleagues and later expelled by a vote of the entire House. He did win back his seat, but — after years of legal squabbling — Harlem voters chose to replace him with Mr. Rangel.
The House Ethics Committee is now investigating many of the charges against Mr. Rangel. Despite promises of stronger ethics, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appears to have no intention thus far of disciplining a man she calls “very distinguished.”
In 1967, Rep. Morris Udall, Arizona Democrat, led the fight to strip Mr. Powell of his chairmanship. Mr. Udall complained that Mr. Powell hurt public confidence in Congress, which had fallen from 71 percent to 54 percent within a year. A late September CBS poll found public confidence in Congress is now at a meager 15 percent.
Mr. Rangel was elected, in part, to clean up Mr. Powell’s mess. Now, he has become his own mess. It reflects poorly on him and hurts Harlem and Washington. Harlem needs another renaissance — an ethical one this time.
• Bishop Council Nedd II of the Chesapeake and the Northeast for the Episcopal Missionary Church is a member of Project 21.