The ethics troubles of senior Democrats could have an impact on the mid-terms
ON JULY 25th Target, a “big box” retailer, opened its first Manhattan store, up in Harlem. The opening, which will provide 400 jobs for the community as well as cheap groceries, is, in part, thanks to the local congressman, Charlie Rangel, who has worked hard since 1970 to bring business to Harlem. Unfortunately, ethics violations will also be part of his legacy. On July 29th he was charged with 13 counts of violating House ethics rules, including allegedly using public resources—House staff and stationery—to solicit donations for a college building named after him.
Over the past two years, the raspy-voiced octogenarian has been investigated several times for ethical slip-ups and for failing to obey tax laws. Mr Rangel owns a beach house in the Dominican Republic, but allegedly neglected to pay taxes on $75,000 of the rental income from it. He occupies four rent-controlled apartments in New York. When disclosing his assets to Congress, he appears to have omitted about half of them. The Korean-war hero who marched with Martin Luther King and who changed the tax code to tighten sanctions against apartheid South Africa is now better known for a photograph taken of him sleeping at his beach house than for 40 years of public service.
Mr Rangel is adamant that he did not intentionally violate any law or regulation, and insists he did not misuse his public office for private gain. In a 32-page rebuttal to the charges, he claimed that other prominent politicians also raised funds under “virtually identical circumstances”, yet were not accused of acting improperly.
The Harlem lawmaker is not the only one under investigation. Maxine Waters, who has represented the Watts district of Los Angeles since 1991, also faces charges of wrongdoing. Ms Waters, a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee, allegedly intervened with financial regulators on behalf of a bank in which her husband had substantial investments. She, too, denies doing anything improper, and like Mr Rangel will be tried by a panel of equal numbers of House Democrats and Republicans.
Corruption knows no party lines. According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a group dedicated to promoting ethics and accountability in government, seven of a list of 15 of the most corrupt politicians in Washington, DC, are Republican. John Ensign, a Republican senator from Nevada, is being looked at by the Senate Ethics Committee and the FBI for illegally covering up an adulterous affair. But, with few exceptions, Congress does not like to punish its own. Tom DeLay, for instance, a former majority leader, was found to have violated ethics rules but was never punished. Before the expulsion in 2002 of Jim Traficant, a toupeed Ohio Democrat who was indicted for bribery and racketeering, only one other House member had been expelled since the civil war.
Public trials for both Mr Rangel and Ms Waters are the last thing Democrats want in the run-up to the much feared mid-term elections. Though Mr Rangel's and Ms Waters's districts are secure, other Democratic seats are not.
Barack Obama hopes Mr Rangel may be able to “end his career with dignity”. This, for now, seems unlikely. His trial will probably begin next month. He has a combined 80th birthday party and fund-raiser scheduled for August 11th—a gala event that will go ahead regardless.