JIM LEHRER: Veteran New York Congressman Charlie Rangel agreed to a last-minute plea deal today on ethics charges, But the full House Ethics Committee has yet to accept its terms.
NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage, as the Rangel drama finally goes public.
KWAME HOLMAN: Reports of the plea deal came hours after the veteran New York congressman arrived at his Capitol Hill office prepared for a tough day.
REP. CHARLES RANGEL, D-N.Y.: Sixty years ago, I survived a Chinese attack in North Korea. And, as result, I wrote a book that, having survived that, that I haven’t had a bad day since. Today, I have to reassess that statement.
KWAME HOLMAN: For a time, it appeared Rangel’s prognosis was confirmed, as a House investigating panel met, and made public the charges.
The list of 13 ethics violations included allegations that Rangel used congressional letterhead to solicit funds for a public service center named after him at the City College of New York, and failed to report more than $600,000 on financial disclosure forms.
Other charges involved mishandling taxes on rental income from a villa Rangel owns in the Dominican Republic, and his alleged misuse of four rent-controlled apartments in New York City, including one used as a campaign office.
Texas Democrat Gene Green chaired the panel that’s been investigating Rangel for 21 months.
REP. GENE GREEN, D-Texas: One of the most difficult tasks assigned to a member of Congress is to sit in judgment of a colleague. The task is even more difficult when the subject of the investigation has befriended and mentored so many new members of Congress, myself being one of them. And I know that all parties look forward to a final resolution to this matter.
KWAME HOLMAN: Rangel’s attorney submitted a written statement to the committee saying, “The undisputed evidence in the record is that Congressman Rangel didn’t dispense any political favors, that he didn’t intentionally violate any law, rule or regulation, and that he didn’t misuse his public office for private gain.”
A short time later, news of the tentative last-minute agreement emerged, out of negotiations between Rangel’s attorneys and nonpartisan lawyers for the House ethics committee. Talks had been ongoing for days, but the hangup was Rangel’s refusal to admit to certain charges.
Details of what the congressman did agree to, in the end, were scarce, but members of the Ethics Committee were reviewing the proposed settlement. The move would spare Rangel a House trial this fall that could have embarrassed the 20-term lawmaker and become a potential liability for his Democratic colleagues this November.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi addressed that concern earlier in the day at her weekly briefing.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI: Upholding a high ethical standard is a serious responsibility that we have. The process will work. It’s bipartisan. The chips will have to fall where they may politically. But upholding the highest ethical standard is a top priority for us.
KWAME HOLMAN: Two Democrats, Betty Sutton of Ohio and Walt Minnick of Idaho, already had called for Rangel to resign. And House Republican Leader John Boehner used the Rangel matter to issue a broader attack.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER JOHN BOEHNER: This is a sad moment for our institution. And this isn’t about Charlie Rangel. This is about Speaker Pelosi’s most glaring promise that she’s broken, when she said in ’06 that it’s time to drain the swamp. I think Speaker Pelosi owes the American people some answers to their questions.
KWAME HOLMAN: Rangel already stepped down as chair of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee last march. That was after the ethics panel found he improperly accepted Caribbean trips from corporations.
JIM LEHRER: We get more now from NewsHour political editor David Chalian.
David, there is a deal on the table. The lawyers have accepted it, but that is as far as it’s gone at this point?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, the Rangel lawyers have put forth a deal.
JIM LEHRER: OK.
DAVID CHALIAN: But the ethics committee staff, the nonpartisan lawyers and the nonpartisan staff there, still reviewing it, and that may take some time.
Republicans are not eager to jump and accept this deal. They said today in the hearing, Jim, you know, he had — Charlie Rangel had time throughout the entire investigative process to strike a deal. And, as one Republican member of the committee put it today, we’re now in the trial phase.
So, they’re not eager to accept this deal. But the fact that Charlie Rangel got to a place where he’s willing to admit some level of wrongdoing, that he was able to put together a package with his lawyers, present it to the committee, and say, here’s a tentative agreement towards settlement, now the ethics committee needs to review that.
JIM LEHRER: Is there any reporting that indicates that it is Republicans vs. Democrats on making this decision?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, it’s more just reading the tea leaves of how they spoke in the open hearing today.
As you know, and Kwame was talking about there, today was that first organizational public meeting of this adjudicatory body inside the ethics committee that will basically serve as judge and jury in this process if it goes to a full try.
And just listening to the way that the Democrats and the Republicans were speaking, they were speaking somewhat differently. It was the Republican members that kept pointing out, we’re done with the investigation. He had his opportunity to settle. We’re now moving to a trial.
Democrats more were speaking to, we just need to make sure this process moves forward in the most fair way it can.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. All right, now, for the record here, we should point out that Rangel wasn’t present in this hearing, and this brief — well, the meeting, what, lasted less than 30 minutes, right, at the House ethics committee?
DAVID CHALIAN: That’s right. He could have appeared if he wanted.
JIM LEHRER: Could have appeared.
DAVID CHALIAN: But it was not — today wasn’t a day — as the chairwoman, Zoe Lofgren, the Democrat of California who heads up the ethics committee, said, today was not a day to present the evidence. Today was simply a day to read forth these 13 counts of alleged violations and to set forth the process for a potential trial, should it get to that in September when Congress returns. That’s when we would probably hear from Charlie Rangel.
JIM LEHRER: OK. Refresh our memories about the House ethics. First of all, how many members are on there?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, on this body, because this isn’t the full committee — on this body…
JIM LEHRER: Right.
DAVID CHALIAN: … that will look at this trial, it’s four Republicans and four Democrats.
As you know, the House Ethics Committee, it’s the only committee in the House that has equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. It doesn’t matter who is in the majority. It truly is a bipartisan process. It has a nonpartisan staff. And for them to find Charlie Rangel guilty, if you will, of any one of these charges, it requires five votes.
So, the vote…
JIM LEHRER: A majority — not unanimous, but just a majority vote?
DAVID CHALIAN: Not unanimous, but a majority vote. So, it — but it technically then of course would have to be bipartisan. Not just one party can make the vote happen for guilt.
So, the vote would, by nature, by math, have to be a bipartisan one, if it gets to that.
JIM LEHRER: Is there any way to know that — whether the Democrats are really pushing to have this thing resolved now, because the trial, the public trial, would now be seen as even a bigger problem for Democrats, beyond Charlie Rangel? Is that still hanging out there?
DAVID CHALIAN: Right. Now you got to the politics of this.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
DAVID CHALIAN: And you heard Leader Boehner there. He immediately said, this isn’t about Charlie Rangel, right? This is much broader, about Speaker Pelosi, because they want to make this a national issue for them to use, the Republicans, in this campaign season.
And Democrats are wary about it. They do not want some distraction in what is already a very tough political environment for them. They do not want this as part of the campaign season.
And here’s why. It is because it just stinks of Washington as usual. Here’s the group that promised a lot of change in 2006 and 2008. Nancy Pelosi: Drain the swamp.
And this just reeks of Washington as usual. And they don’t want that at all in this anti-Washington, anti-establishment year. But, yes, to your question about the reporting, the leader of the Democratic Campaign committee has met with Charlie Rangel twice in recent weeks. That’s not just friendly conversation, I’m sure.
We know that Democrats have been eager to push him towards a settlement, to resolve this without a public trial.
JIM LEHRER: Of course, meanwhile, Charlie Rangel may have his own views about what is best for him, beyond the party.
DAVID CHALIAN: No doubt about it. He has a legacy that he is watching. He has been there 40 years. He already got to the hardest part, which was stepping down as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
Once he realizes he is never going to have that gavel again, that may help him come to terms with the process going forward.
JIM LEHRER: OK. David, thank you.
DAVID CHALIAN: Thank you.