Washington lawmakers who have long sought to bring Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel to justice found him guilty on Tuesday of violating 11 House ethics rules.
But back in New York, where Rangel represents the 15th Congressional District, some of his colleagues and constituents, along with political experts, have come to his defense, condemning the House Ethics Committee’s ruling as unjust and excessive.
“I hope I will be able to assist Congressman Rangel in focusing attention on his attributes with our colleagues before any vote on any penalty takes place,” said Benjamin Gilman, a former representative from New York who worked closely with Rangel for over 40 years and served alongside him as co-chair of the New York state congressional delegation. “I believe the Ethics Committee should have permitted the congressman the opportunity to bring in a new attorney instead of forcing him to accept their decision of not permitting any additional time for him to hire new counsel.”
With no legal team representing him due to his depleted campaign account, Rangel walked out of his own trial before an adjudicatory subcommittee on Monday. He publicly argued that he had not had sufficient time to hire a new team after recently parting ways with his former law firm, but the subcommittee countered that he had been given ample opportunity to do so and continued the trial without him.
The trial came on the heels of 13 charges brought against Rangel in July accusing him of multiple House rule violations, including falsely disclosing his personal assets, failing to pay federal income taxes on a vacation property, and renting rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem at rates far below market value.
The eight-member, bipartisan adjudicatory subcommittee, which was created specifically to review these charges, began the first day of the trial and deliberations on Monday. After nearly four hours of further deliberations on Tuesday, the subcommittee unanimously found Rangel guilty of 11 of the 13 charges.
Now, the case will be brought up for a vote before the full House, which will decide on a punishment. This sanctioning could range from a formal reprimand to expulsion from Congress.
“How can anyone have confidence in the decision of the ethics subcommittee when I was deprived of due process rights, right to counsel, and was not even in the room?” Rangel said in a statement after the decision on Tuesday. “I can only hope that the full committee will treat me more fairly and take into account my entire 40 years of service to the Congress before making any decisions on sanctions.”
Those close to Rangel likewise emphasized his longevity in Congress and in Harlem where he has developed a loyal constituency that some believe will look beyond the events unfolding in the House.
“People don’t care about what’s going on in Washington,” Kevin Wardally, Rangel’s campaign manager, said on Tuesday. “Most people already made up their minds about the congressman. He got 80 percent of the vote just two weeks ago, and that shows something about West Harlem,” he added, referring to the general election in which Rangel overwhelmingly triumphed over his two challengers.
Some local residents were also quick to come to Rangel’s defense.
“That actually really bothers me ... For a person like that to get convicted of charges and treated that way is really frustrating,” said West Harlem resident Hector Frias, who met Rangel for the first time at the city’s annual Dominican Day Parade. “For a person that powerful to have had a conversation with me, it just shows how great he is. I want him to come back stronger.”
Others in the neighborhood argued that the charges themselves were unwarranted.
“He didn’t do anything criminal. There’s no criminal charges here, so why has this turned into something that’s such a big deal?” Grace Nandeka, West Harlem resident, said. “They were just silly and careless mistakes he made, and I really think he should be allowed to stay. He’s done so much for the community.”
But resident Robert Collins was less forgiving.
“I don’t have any respect for him right now. If he’s charged with anything that bad, then that really says something,” he said.
Sonia Monserrate, another Harlem resident, added, “Even if you have a high-ranking official who’s done so much for the community, if you make a mistake with the government, you have to pay the price.”
And some political experts say he just may pay the price in Washington.
“His influence within Congress is diminishing with his colleagues,” Columbia political science professor Robert Erikson said. “He’s perceived as having diminished importance and power now.”
But New York-based political consultant Jerry Skurnik said that, while Rangel may face an uphill battle before his colleagues in Washington, this trial will not affect his future electoral success in New York.
“This is always going to be a stain on his reputation, yet just how serious of a stain is too soon to tell,” he said. “But considering he won his primary and general election this year fairly easily, I still think if he decided to run again in two years, he’d still be a strong candidate.”