Washington scandals tend to build like snowdrifts. They start with a little flaky business, but if the wind starts blowing hard enough, they can swallow you before you know it.
That's why Charlie Rangel might be looking for a shovel these days. The flurries started last summer as a series of embarrassing revelations. Among them was the fact that Rangel was occupying four rent-controlled apartments simultaneously in upper Manhattan and that his tax returns Rangel is the chairman of the tax-code-writing House Ways and Means Committee were such a mess that he was hiring a "forensic auditor" to figure out why he had failed to report $75,000 in rental income from a villa in the Dominican Republic. Adding to the tangle of questions was the fact that even as he was living in those New York apartments and being charged less than half what they would have cost on the going market, Rangel was claiming a homestead exemption on a house he owns in Washington, D.C. (See Rangel on the Top 10 outrageous earmarks list.)
All that might be written off as small lapses or even just sloppiness. But any snickering stopped last week, when the New York Times reported that Rangel had been "instrumental" in preserving a lucrative tax loophole that benefited an oil-drilling company whose chief executive had pledged $1 million to a school of public service named for Rangel at City College of New York (CCNY). Now the doubts surrounding Rangel have grown to the point that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is worried they will linger past Barack Obama's inauguration and into the dawn of the new Democratic era. She issued a statement the day before Thanksgiving saying she expects the House Ethics Committee to complete its initial inquiry into Rangel an investigation that the chairman called for himself by Jan. 3.
Rangel's spokesman Emile Milne says no one is more eager than the chairman to see the Ethics Committee finish its work. "Chairman Rangel requested the review by the Ethics Committee and is confident that he behaved appropriately in these matters," Milne said in a statement he e-mailed to TIME.com. "He looks forward to leading the Ways and Means Committee in January as the new Congress works in partnership with our new President to create jobs and help our struggling families."
There are few posts more powerful than chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which not only writes tax law but also oversees trade policy and is responsible for the nearly half of the federal budget that goes toward Social Security, Medicare and means-tested entitlements. Complicating the matter for House Democratic leaders is the lack of an obvious successor for Rangel at this time of economic turmoil. The next in line for the post by seniority is California Congressman Pete Stark, one of the most liberal and hotheaded members of Congress. He has been known to challenge other members of the committee to fight him and once called a Republican colleague a "little wimp" and a "fruitcake." (See the Top 10 unfortunate political one-liners.)
Meanwhile, Rangel, 78 one of the most recognizable and beloved figures on Capitol Hill has gone to war with his hometown paper, particularly after its editorial page urged him to step aside as chairman while the ethical questions are being investigated. "His temporary yielding of the gavel is an urgent necessity for a Democratic Congress elected two years ago on promises of an ethical housecleaning," the New York Times editorialized in September. Earlier this week, after the paper published even more serious allegations, Rangel wrote a scathing letter to the editor denying that he had done anything improper with regard to the loophole that rewarded Nabors Industries and its CEO, Eugene Isenberg, who had given the $1 million donation to CCNY. He also contended that New York Times reporter David Kocieniewski had ignored the facts of the matter "to promote his agenda is irresponsible and should not be tolerated by any paper, especially The New York Times." On its website, the Times ran a rebuttal by Kocieniewski that was twice as long as Rangel's letter.
On Friday, yet another potential problem surfaced for Rangel, when Politico.com reported that he had paid his son $80,000 in campaign funds "for a pair of political websites so poorly designed an expert estimated one should have cost no more than $100 to create." Says congressional scholar Tom Mann: "It's very sad, but it's sort of one thing after another ... It's still too early to tell what the resolution will be, but it certainly isn't helpful that new items keep emerging."