Rangel Lawsuit Against Ethic Committee Hinges on Secret Memo

Eleanor Clift on the memo behind a lawsuit the New York congressman has filed against the Ethics Committee.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) handily won reelection in November, even though his House colleagues had voted to censure him for ethics violations in 2010 by an overwhelming margin, 333 to 79. He could have left those charges alone, knowing they had not dissuaded his constituents from supporting him, but that wouldn’t be the Rangel way. So he is back fighting with a lawsuit filed against House Speaker John Boehner and the six lawmakers who sat on the ethics panel that brought the charges against him.

The substance of the charges against him are almost a sideshow: failing to pay taxes on the rental income he received from a vacation home in the Dominican Republic and using his position as a powerful committee chairman to solicit donations from companies wanting to court him top the list. Rangel has taken issue with how the six-member Ethics Committee arrived at their decision and whether relevant information was withheld.

That’s where it gets interesting. Jay Goldberg, Rangel’s attorney, uncovered a secret July 2011 memo from Democratic staff director Blake Chisam outlining at length his concerns about the performance of two committee attorneys, Stacy Sovereign and Cindy Morgan Kim. The most stinging of the complaints are politically charged, accusing the attorneys of essentially being in cahoots with the Republican members, constructing scenarios that went beyond the facts to charge Rangel, and alleging that Sovereign in particular made racially prejudicial remarks suggesting a bias that made coworkers uncomfortable.

The staff director’s memo quotes Sovereign talking about her previous job as a prosecutor in the Washington, D.C., U.S. attorney’s office and wondering how she, as a “blond-haired, blue-eyed prosecutor,” could ever get a D.C. jury to convict a defendant.

The two attorneys were subsequently suspended. But Rangel’s lawsuit asks why the Democratic co-chairwoman of the Ethics Committee, California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who received the memo from the staff director—also her chief counsel—went ahead to certify the investigation of Rangel as fair and impartial without disclosing that she was in receipt of a memo damning the work of two of the counsels assigned to the case. A call to Lofgren’s office was not returned.

Democrats were in control of the House when the investigation of Rangel was conducted, and the vote to censure Rangel occurred under Democratic control. A majority of Democrats joined the GOP in the vote. And that may be one of the reasons why Rangel, who is now 82 years old, wants to reopen this case. A stalwart Democrat, he is disbelieving that so many of his Democratic colleagues voted against him. Republicans are one thing, if you’re a Democratic politician, you can always chalk it up to partisan warfare.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Washington, alleges “numerous, flagrant, knowing and intentional violations” of the due process rights of Congressman Rangel. Speaker Boehner had nothing to do with the investigation, and the reason he is mentioned in the lawsuit is that he would be the one, as speaker, to put the machinery in motion to overturn Rangel’s censure should he win in court.

It would be unusual, however, for the courts to intervene in the internal workings of Congress on a disciplinary matter.