Is Rangel Simply Guilty of Business as Usual?

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Alex Wong / Getty Images

U.S. Representative Charles Rangel at Capitol Hill in Washington

Clarification Appended: Aug. 13, 2010

In Congress, it happens all the time: during a phone call, after a handshake or before a gala dinner in a tacky hotel ballroom. Your elected leaders routinely beg for money from the same corporate bigwigs lobbying them for official actions. Sometimes it's a campaign check. Sometimes it's for a charity back home, often one named in the Congressman's honor.

Of course, the asking is done delicately, and often with plausible deniability, so no one raises a ruckus. But for precisely this reason, the new ethics charges pending against New York House Democrat Charles Rangel have the potential to shake up the U.S. Capitol's shady routines. Without any evidence of an explicit quid pro quo, Rangel has been accused of improper fundraising for an academic center in his honor. In effect, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has accused Rangel of behaving like his peers. "This is hardly unique," says Melanie Sloan, of the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "A lot of members are going to be good and confused because it is not clear how what the Congressman has done is so different from what other members have done and are still doing."

It is undeniable that Rangel raised funds for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service in a clumsy way, asking for huge sums from companies that sought his favor, improperly using a Congressional letterhead and closely scheduling different meetings with the same people about fundraising and policy. But the charges against him hinge, in part, upon a squishy standard that has the potential to entrap many other elected leaders. A 1958 federal rule says government workers should not accept "favors or benefits under circumstances which might be construed by reasonable persons as influencing the performance of his governmental duties."

Reasonable persons, if they can still be found in Washington, might find interest in the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, for which Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell raised funds from many of the same companies that seek his legislative favor. The defense contractor United Defense, for instance, pledged $500,000 to the center after its founding in 1991. In the current 2010 budget, McConnell requested at least $17 million in earmarks for BAE, the company that now owns United Defense, including money for a former United Defense plant in Kentucky. The McConnell Center is housed in the same building as the archives of McConnell and his wife, along with a museum-style exhibit showing the couple's childhood photos. Though the archives are technically funded separately, the archivist reports to the head of the McConnell-backed center, which uses the archives as an educational tool, says a university spokeswoman. "I don't see any comparability to the Rangel matter," McConnell said in a recent interview on Fox News.

Academic centers are by no means the only questionable game in town. Consider the eponymous Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel, which mentors Baltimore-area teenagers with trips to the Holy Land. In July of 2009, one week after the Democratic Congressman praised the program in a newspaper article, the cable giant Comcast made a $25,000 contribution, followed by another check for $35,000, which was celebrated by Cummings at a March gala dinner. Cummings, meanwhile, sent two letters in the past year to the Federal Communications Commission, one siding with Comcast to oppose new Net-neutrality rules and the other supporting the company's proposed merger with NBC Universal. A Cummings spokesman says the fundraising has "always been in compliance with the rules and regulations" and did not influence the Congressman's official actions.

Then there are the oil paintings. After Tennessee's Bart Gordon, the head of the Science and Technology Committee, said he would not run for re-election this year, his former chief of staff, Chuck Atkins, began soliciting contributions to pay for Gordon's official congressional portrait. Nissan North America, which benefited from a $1.4 billion Energy Department grant Gordon supported, chipped in $5,000. Bridgestone Americas, which benefited from Gordon's support for a tax on Chinese tires, gave $2,500.

In each of these cases, and dozens of others, the benefits to the member of Congress are indirect — some positive press, perhaps a picture for the wall or a legacy building in the home district. There is also no evidence to directly connect the fundraising with an official action. But there can be little doubt about the intentions of the companies that donate the money. Since 2008, corporations with registered lobbyists have been required to disclose publicly any donations to nonprofits tied to sitting members of Congress. And records show that the most powerful members — appropriators, leaders, chairmen — attract the most money.

Hawaii's Daniel Inouye, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, has spawned a small industry of fundraising from defense contractors for various academic and historical causes, which he has often supported with federal money through federal earmarks. "He's been instrumental," says Clint Churchill, the board president of the Pacific Aviation Museum, which raised more than $800,000 — including $100,000 from Northrop Grumman, a major beneficiary of Senate earmarks — at an Inouye Gala in April. The sitting House majority whip, Jim Clyburn, regularly collects five-figure checks for the self-titled James E. Clyburn Research and Scholarship Foundation. California Democrat Joe Baca, the head of the House Subcommittee on Nutrition, was able to attract $50,000 in donations from Coca-Cola for his eponymous foundation, which is run by his son, Joe Baca Jr.

PepsiCo filed documents this year to note Senator Chuck Schumer's involvement in its $50,000 sponsorship of the Tour of the Battenkill, an upstate New York bike race that the New York Democrat has long supported as an economic boon to the area. One month after the PepsiCo donation, Schumer told a local business group that he would continue fighting to keep a major Pepsi bottling plant in Westchester, N.Y., with incentives to prevent a move to Connecticut, adding that he thought the proposed tax on soda in the state was a bad idea. "We have to look out for specific companies and do what we can to help them," the Senator said, according to a local newspaper. A Schumer spokesman says the Senator's involvement demonstrated his "enormous attention and energy to preserving economic vitality throughout New York State."

Like the other members mentioned above, Rangel continues to deny that there was any corruption involved in his fundraising for a new academic center in his home district. "There's no indication of any sworn testimony saying that I received a benefit," he thundered on the House floor on Aug. 11 in a remarkable, meandering speech. "No witness ever said there was preferential treatment given." But the appearance of impropriety is hard to deny whenever a sitting legislator is seeking money from a company that gets help from that member's official government actions. It was for this reason, perhaps, that Rangel added a warning for his colleagues. "You have to be very careful, new members, of making certain that when they change the rules that you know what happens," he said.

With reporting by Katy Steinmetz / Washington

This story has been edited to make clear that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is not currently raising money for the McConnell Center, and to clarify the corporate relationship between United Defense, BAE and the McConnell Center.