WASHINGTON – Rep. Charles Rangel said Friday he won't step down as chairman of the powerful House tax-writing committee after being admonished by an ethics panel for accepting corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean. The public rebuke of one of the Democrats' most outspoken leaders posed more woes for a party that had vowed to end a "culture of corruption."
The House ethics committee said that aides to the 20-term New York Democrat tried at least three times to show him the trips — to Antigua in 2007 and St. Maarten in 2008 — had corporate sponsorship, a violation of congressional gift rules.
The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee claimed that Friday's report by the ethics panel "exonerates me" because it cites no evidence that he knew the trips were sponsored by corporations.
Rangel denied to investigators that he saw any of the written communications from staff members.
The report said investigators could not determine whether Rangel saw two staff memos to him mentioning corporate sponsorship in 2008 and a letter addressed to him in 2007.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, noting that multiple ethics complaints remain pending against Rangel, declined to say whether he should stay on the job. "We'll just see what happens next," Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters.
In addition to the trips, Rangel still faces potentially more serious allegations, including failing to disclose rental income on a villa in the Dominican Republic, use of his congressional office to raise money for a college center in his name and belated financial disclosure of hundreds of thousands of dollars in previously unreported wealth.
The latest ethics controversy presents yet another headache for Democrats in a difficult year as they try to revive stalled health care legislation and face a likely midterm election loss of seats in Congress. It also was a setback to Pelosi, who had promised to "drain the swamp" of ethics abuses as part of the Democratic campaign to win back the House in 2006.
The ethics panel — formally known as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — cited three written communications that it suggested should have alerted Rangel to the role of corporations:
_A memo to Rangel by a staff counsel on Sept. 25, 2008, discussing corporate sponsors for the 2008 conference in St. Maarten.
_A letter from the group listed as the conference sponsor, the Carib News Foundation, to American Airlines regarding tickets for the 2007 conference he attended in Antigua. It contained a line indicating a copy was sent to Rangel.
_An Oct. 23, 2008, memo from the staff counsel to Rangel, discussing an article in the New York Post that was critical of the 2007 conference because of allegations regarding corporate sponsorship.
Rangel told the committee he did not recall receiving the two memos or the letter about tickets, adding that he "did not know why he would have been copied" in on the airline letter.
In a written response to the committee later Friday, Rangel called the panel's conclusion that he violated gift rules "wrong on the facts and unsupported by the law." He said he relied on false assertions by the organizers that corporate money was not used.
Referring to the two memos by his staff counsel, Rangel said her "use of the word sponsor does not suggest an understanding that the corporations were `sponsors' within the meaning of the House rules i.e. that their funds were being used to pay for member travel."
Rangel said lawmakers "will be blind-sided with ethics problems" if they're held accountable for everything known to their staff members. Rangel called the committee's findings "ill-considered, unprecedented, unfair."
The committee said that while it could not prove that Rangel did or did not see the communications, he was responsible for the actions of his staff.
Rangel on Friday brushed off the panel's criticism and focused on its inability to prove whether he knew about the corporate sponsorship. "Clearly the wording exonerates me," he told reporters.
He said he didn't even have "constructive knowledge" of the corporate sponsorship of the trips and couldn't be held responsible for something staff members may have known but which he didn't.
Asked if he planned to remain committee chairman in light of the admonishment, Rangel responded: "Why don't you ask me am I'm going to stay chairman of the committee in light of the fact that we're expecting heavy snow in New York?" He said that would be just as relevant.
Pelosi said she hadn't yet read the ethics panel's report, only a summary of its findings. She said she wanted to read the full report before commenting more fully. "There's more to Mr. Rangel's situation and we look forward to hearing from Mr. Rangel on that," she said.
While Pelosi is standing by Rangel for now, some rank-and-file Democrats are not.
Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., said Rangel should "either step down or step aside until this is resolved." Taylor is one of the most conservative Democrats in the House. Rangel, who represents Harlem, is one of the most liberal.
Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., said: "Washington must be held to the highest ethical standards. Regrettably, with the finding of ethics violations, Charlie Rangel should step down from his leadership position."
"I think the report speaks for itself," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "They admonished him and he said he will pay for his trip. They made a finding that he did not knowingly violate any rules. ... And the other issues remain under review and they need to render a judgment expeditiously."
Should he step aside as chairman? "That would be disproportionate" to the panel's bipartisan finding of "no knowing violation," Van Hollen said.
On Thursday the ethics panel ended another widespread investigation, saying it found no violations of House rules by seven lawmakers who steered government money and projects to companies that donated to their re-election campaigns.
All seven — five Democrats and two Republicans — are or were senior members of the House Appropriations Committee.
The most prominent of the them was the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., former chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, who died this month. The other six lawmakers exonerated in that probe are Reps. Norman Dicks, D-Wash.; Jim Moran, D-Va.; Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio; Peter Visclosky, D-Ind.; Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan.; and C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Fla.
Republicans have been demanding that Democrats replace Rangel at Ways and Means since investigations began last year.
President Barack Obama "is not going to get involved in internal House matters," his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said at the White House. Gibbs said the president expects that "members of both the House and the Senate understand and ought to be accountable" for following ethics rules.
The ethics panel exonerated five other members of the Congressional Black Caucus who were on either of the 2007 and 2008 trips or on both. But the panel said all six would have to pay the costs.
They were Democratic Reps. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Yvette Clarke of New York, Donald Payne of New Jersey, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick of Michigan and Donna Christensen, the nonvoting delegate from the Virgin Islands.
The ethics committee said the traveling House members relied on false information from the listed official sponsors of the trips, the Carib News, a New York newspaper, and the Carib News Foundation.
Peter Flaherty of the National Legal and Policy Center, an ethics watchdog group, attended the 2008 conference in St. Maarten and filed an ethics complaint that listed companies that had signs and materials at the event. He said Citigroup, Pfizer, American Airlines, AT&T, Verizon, Macy's and IBM were among them.
Rangel, 79, was first elected to the House in 1970 from New York's Harlem district, defeating Adam Clayton Powell Jr., at the time the most prominent black politician in the country and one with his own ethics problems.
Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher, Alan Fram and Ann Sanner contributed to this report.