On his federal tax returns, Rangel failed to declare rental income from a vacation property he owns in the Dominican Republic -- a mortifying embarrassment for the one-time chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes the tax code. But certain facts about this transgression rarely get mentioned. For one thing, Rangel’s so-called “villa” can’t be very palatial, since it cost only $82,750 when he bought it in 1987. For another, Rangel has already filed amended tax returns and paid everything he owed, plus penalties and interest.
The remaining charges are yawn-inducing. Even assuming that the allegations, as presented to the House Ethics Committee, are wholly true, the case against Rangel has a Gertrude Stein problem: There’s no there there.
Rangel is accused of abusing his office -- using congressional staff, official stationery, and the unique access that his power and seniority gave him -- to raise funds for a Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. The idea was to create an institution, situated in his Harlem district, that would house his papers and curate his legacy.
This can accurately be described as hubris. But if it’s a crime for powerful, long-serving members of Congress to hold themselves in abnormally high regard -- and to believe that future generations can learn from their sterling example -- then we’re going to have to build more prisons.
Rangel apparently was careless in filling out his required financial disclosure forms; he should have known better than to take that important exercise so lightly. And he’s accused of using a rent-controlled Harlem apartment as a campaign office -- which, I suppose, makes him the first New Yorker to look for loopholes in the city’s Byzantine rent-control laws. But where’s the old-fashioned venality? Where’s the out-and-out graft? Where’s even the hint of avarice?
What’s missing is any allegation that Rangel bent or broke a single House rule -- or even a New York city ordinance -- for his own gain. The Ethics Committee charges make much of a promotional flyer for the proposed Rangel Center that indicated Rangel would have an office at the facility. But, come on, does that really constitute a “personal benefit” under the law? Does anyone think that the legendary Charlie Rangel, after representing Harlem for four decades, doesn’t have a friend or two who would be happy to give him all the office space he wants once he eventually retires?
Rangel was trying to satisfy his ego, not line his pockets. The real crime would be if such a long, distinguished, important public career ended in disgrace.