At one point I served as an attorney for Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). So I am only going to stick to published facts in this column.
Recently, a very good friend of mine who is the host of a cable TV show expressed no interest in my reviewing these undisputed, published facts because, he said, Rangel is a “tax cheat,” and what more is there to say?
So let’s start with that as an example of someone — a good person who believes in due process — who has been misinformed and is not aware of the facts, and thus reached an erroneous conclusion about Rangel.
Fact: Involving the matter before the House ethics committee, there is no evidence whatsoever that Rangel intentionally did not pay his income taxes. As we know from the initial reports in The New York Times, Rangel was unaware, for a period of over 20 years, that he owed any income taxes regarding a condominium in the Dominican Republic. He first learned that was the case in the summer of 2008. The tax liability arose from a distribution of proceeds to all the condo owners after expenses were paid — but the distributions were “non-cash,” applied to reduce each owner’s mortgage.
Since Rangel did not recall receiving regular reports of those distributions over the 20 years (reducing a mortgage in the neighborhood, I believe, of $75,000 down to zero), he first did not realize he owed taxes on the imputed income leading to the reduction of the mortgage principal. He made — to use two words that are less believed in Washington, perhaps, than any other two words — an honest mistake.
The amount of actual tax liability over this 20-year period turned out to be less than $10,000. (Indeed, after taking into account tax credits and depreciation, etc., it is possible that Rangel owed much less, or even nothing at all.)
Since it was an honest mistake and Rangel did not know he owed these taxes, my friend’s use of the expression “tax cheat” is simply wrong. In order to be a cheat, the act must be intentional. And if it were intentional, that would be a crime. The ethics committee made no such finding because — to repeat — the truth is, Rangel made an honest mistake.
Second is the frequent false use — mostly by partisan Republicans — of the word “corruption” when applied to Rangel. But the staff director of the House ethics committee, Blake Chisam, stated that not one of the counts of the committee’s findings of ethics rules violations — not one — was based on any evidence of personal corruption. Corruption is defined, in this context, as violations that were motivated by or resulted in personal enrichment, as in former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s (R-Calif.) acceptance of bribes in return for votes and congressional support for particular earmarks.
No one — not anywhere — suggests that Rangel was personally enriched, or motivated by such, for any of the rules violations that he has been found to have committed. Indeed, after 40 years of public service, the fact that Rangel is so indigent that he cannot afford to pay for a lawyer to defend him before the ethics committee says it all.
So please, everyone, whatever sanctions the ethics committee decides are appropriate — and I won’t comment on that subject — let’s stick to the facts about Rangel. He made honest mistakes. Yes, he was careless. No, he shouldn’t have been if he were perfect. But: He did not personally enrich himself. Those are the facts.
I personally believe he is a great man, an honorable man, a dedicated public servant — who is capable of making mistakes, capable of being careless, capable of being — the Yiddish word is, and I will spell it phonetically — “fa-mished” (accent on “mished.”)
Whatever judgment you might make about Rangel’s conduct here, at least be sure you are not making them based on non-facts, distortions and politically-motivated characterizations inconsistent with the facts.
I, for one, forgive his honest mistakes and am proud to consider him a friend.
Lanny Davis is the principal in his Washington legal crisis management firm, Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and a partner in the strategic communications firm of Davis-Block LLC. He served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996 to 1998 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006 to 2007. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America.