WASHINGTON – A combative Rep. Charles Rangel told the House on Tuesday he's not resigning despite 13 charges of wrongdoing and demanded the ethics committee not leave him "swinging in the wind."
Rangel, who is 80, spoke without notes in an extraordinary, often emotional 37-minute speech that defied his lawyers' advice to keep quiet about his case.
The New York Democrat and 40-year House veteran had a sharp message in dismissing fellow Democrats who, worried about election losses, want him to quit: "If I can't get my dignity back here, then fire your best shot in getting rid of me through expulsion."
Expulsion is the harshest penalty that can result from an ethics case. It would be highly unlikely in Rangel's case because the former chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee is not accused of corruption. The four-member ethics panel that investigated Rangel suggested a reprimand, a statement of wrongdoing voted by the House, but that is only a recommendation to the ethics committee.
Several hours after Rangel spoke from the front of a half-full House chamber, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear in a written statement that she wasn't pleased with the congressman's choice of venue.
"As I have repeatedly stated, the independent, bipartisan ethics committee is the proper arena for ethics matters to be discussed," she said. "The process is moving forward in a way that will ensure that the highest ethical standards are upheld in the House of Representatives."
Pelosi faces the possibility of the House losing its majority in November. The Rangel ethics case isn't helping, nor are unrelated charges that Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., improperly tried to help a bank where her husband had a financial interest. Waters is a senior member of the Financial Services Committee.
Rangel, who said he has lost much sleep during the two-year investigation, was interrupted by applause twice — including when he said: "I am not going away. I am here." A few Republicans clapped, but most support came from Democrats.
The Democrat from Harlem acknowledged that he made mistakes, especially in belatedly reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets and income, but he insisted he was not corrupt. And he insisted the committee overstated the seriousness of his solicitations of businesses and foundations for the Charles Rangel Center at City College of New York.
Those solicited had major legislative issues before Rangel's committees, and the charges said "reasonable persons" could construe the donations as influencing Rangel's actions. Rangel said he was only guilty of "grabbing the wrong stationery" — a reference to solicitations he sent on his official letterhead.
Several Republican lawmakers embraced Rangel's call for swifter handling of ethics cases.
"Two years is longer than a normal criminal case usually takes," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. He said charges against Rangel should have been brought much earlier.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said Rangel drove home the point that lawmakers deserve "a fair process" when ethics allegations arise.
"I'm not asking for leniency. I'm asking for exposure of the facts," Rangel said in demanding that the ethics panel expedite the hearing of his case.
Rangel noted the committee is scheduled to convene Sept. 13, the day before his primary election, but that the main part of his ethics trial would not come until later in the fall.
"Don't leave me swinging in the wind until November," he demanded.
Rangel, known for his friendly, backslapping demeanor but also his toughness on legislative issues, said he had his own interpretation of President Barack Obama's remarks in a CBS interview on July 30. The president said: "He's somebody who's at the end of his career. I'm sure that what he wants is to be able to end his career with dignity. And my hope is that it happens."
Rangel said, "When the president said he wanted me to end my career in dignity, he didn't put a time limit on it."
White House spokesman Bill Burton would not elaborate on what Obama meant, including whether the president was sending Rangel a not-so-veiled suggestion that he leave Congress.
"I think the president's words speak for themselves," Burton said.
Rangel said his legal bills have reached nearly $2 million and he can't afford to keep paying — especially when "nobody is going to read the defense."
In addition to solicitations of donors who lobbied Rangel's committees, he's also accused of belated payment of taxes from income on his rental unit at a Dominican Republic resort; the inexcusable — Rangel's word — failure to file his disclosure statements on time; and of taking advantage of a New York rent subsidy for residential units, by using a Harlem apartment as a campaign office.
"In the haste of sending out hundreds of letters" to donors for the Rangel Center at City College of New York, Rangel said there "has to be a penalty for grabbing the wrong stationery." He quickly added, "It may be stupid, it may be negligent, but it's not corrupt."
He said the office set aside for him at the center is hardly a gift.
"Who the heck needs an office ... in a broken-down building?" he asked.