By DeWayne Wickham
Charlie Rangel is in a tough spot.
Two newspapers — his hometown The New York Times and The Washington Post – have called for him to step down as chairman of the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means while ethics violation charges against him are investigated.
The Harlem congressman says he's guilty of nothing more than bad judgment. But the Times claims that Rangel, now in his 19th term, has committed a long list of transgressions, including helping an oil and gas drilling company keep a federal tax loophole in place while the company's chief executive was pledging a $1 million gift to a City College of New York school named in Rangel's honor.
As bad as that sounds, the case against Rangel has been based mainly on newspaper reports and has not moved much beyond that toward legal evidence.
So far, there are no claims of the existence of audio or videotape recordings of the congressman breaking the law, or clear offering of proof that he violated any ethics rules. And there's been no call by the House Democratic Caucus, or its steering committee, for Rangel to give up his chairmanship.
In fact, House Democrats voted unanimously last month to let Rangel maintain his leadership of the tax-writing committee — a decision they can reverse anytime they see fit.
While denying any wrongdoing, Rangel has asked the House ethics committee to investigate allegations against him. That's exactly what the panel is doing. Last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she expects the committee to finish its work and issue a report on Rangel before the next Congress convenes on Jan.6.
In the absence of that report, or a call from the Democratic Caucus for him to step down, Rangel shouldn't give in to media calls for him to resign his chairmanship.
News organizations play an important role in uncovering acts of wrongdoing by public officials. But their reports, even when factual, often don't constitute proof as needed to seat a grand jury, or the probable cause necessary for law enforcement to target someone for investigation. And up to now, Rangel has neither been indicted, nor has it been announced that he is the subject of a criminal probe.
Sure, the allegations made in the Times stories appear to be damning, but no public official should be stripped of a position on the basis of a newspaper story — alone.
In court, no one ever looks guiltier than when the charges against him are being argued, famed defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran once told me. And defendants never look more innocent than when their side of the case is being presented. The same is often true with the news media.
From now until Jan. 6, the ethics committee likely will hear testimony for and against Rangel and then render its decision. One way or another, this matter is expected to be settled between the time the new Congress convenes and before Barack Obama's swearing-in on Jan. 20.
During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to reduce the influence of lobbyists in Washington if he won the White House. Now, as head of the Democratic Party, he'll inherit a share of the responsibility for dealing with Rangel if the allegations against him prove true and remain unresolved when Obama moves into the Oval Office.
Until then — until the ethics committee, his Democratic colleagues or some legal entity conclude otherwise Rangel should retain his post. For now, he has every right to ignore calls, by newspapers flexing their muscles, for him to fall on his sword.