Wrangling Over Rangel: What Do We Know?

There’s nothing that inspires confidence like the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee — the body that writes our tax laws — submitting a financial disclosure form in which the value for one piece of property varies by as much as 10 times from one page to another. But that’s the case with embattled New York Democrat Charlie Rangel.

We learned yesterday that, with crucial support from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rangel will defy GOP calls for his resignation and stay on as chair of the powerhouse committee. So given that Rangel’s going to be around for at least a while longer, we thought it was worth running down the allegations against the Harlem Congressman.

The trouble started for Rangel in July, when an investigation by the New York Times found that Rangel rents four rent-stabilized apartments — one of which he uses as a campaign office — in the same Harlem building, at well below market rates. City and state regulations prevent the use of rent-controlled apartments for purposes other than as a primary residence.

The more serious charge, first reported by the New York Post at the end of August, is that Rangel failed to disclose — either on his tax returns or on Congressional disclosure forms — over $75,000 in income from a rental villa he owns in the Dominican Republic. Rangel has called the disclosure failures an oversight, and has admitted that he owes around $10,000 in back taxes and penalties.

The Ways and Means Committee, which Rangel chairs, is in charge of writing federal tax laws, making the news particularly embarrassing for Rangel.

A few days after the Post‘s report, Bloomberg News reported that Rangel received an interest-free loan from the developers of the villa, when he bought it in 1990. But, according to the director of the complex that contains the villa, several other non-Dominican investors received similar breaks at the time, because the project wasn’t producing sufficient income.

Rangel has asked the House Ethics Committee to look into both the rent-stabilized apartments issue and the Dominican villa issue, as well as a third matter — that he used his Congressional office letterhead to solicit donors for an educational center named for himself, and run by the City College of New York. In addition, Rangel directed a forensic accounting expert to pore over his tax returns and financial disclosure statements to Congress, and to submit a report to the Ethics Committee.

On Monday, it was announced that the accountant had found additional discrepancies.

As summarized by the Associated Press:

-Rangel’s papers over the past 10 years show no reference to the sale of a home he once owned on Colorado Avenue in Washington.
-The details of a property bought in Sunny Isles, Fla., are bewildering at best. The stated value changes significantly from year to year, and even page to page, from $50,000 to $100,000 all the way up to $500,000.
-Some of the entries for investment funds fluctuate strangely, suggesting that the person either didn’t have accurate information or didn’t fill out the paperwork correctly.

In a statement put out alongisde the announcement of the discrepencies, Rangel said:

“While over the years I delegated to my staff the completion of my annual House financial disclosure statements, I had the ultimate responsibility. I owed my colleagues and the public adherence to a higher standard of care not only as a member of Congress but even more as the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee,” he said.

And it was reported today that Rangel has asked the Ethics Committe to allow him to use campaign contributions to pay for the forensic audit of his tax returns and disclosure forms — which could end up costing more than $100,000.

Right now, the jury is still out on what this all adds up to. At best, Rangel has been irresponsibly lax in the management of his financial affairs. And he may have been deliberately mendacious. But as things currently stand, there’s little evidence of a quo for the quid.

On the issue of the Harlem apartments, Rangel did have a 2005 meeting with a lobbyist for the Olnick Association, the company that owns the building in question, when Olnick was seeking government approval for two building projects in the Bronx and Harlem. But both Olnick and Rangel say the Congressman took no action on the company’s behalf, and neither project advanced.

And as for the Dominican vila, there’s no evidence whatsoever that Rangel took steps to help the company that owned the complex, or that his failure to pay taxes on the villa income, or make proper disclosures to Congress, was abetted by anyone seeking favors from him.

Still, at the very least, Rangel’s inability to personally comply with the tax laws doesn’t inspire much confidence that he’s the best person to be writing those laws.