WASHINGTON — Republican leaders on Tuesday called for a powerful Democrat to step down as chairman of an influential tax-writing committee until ethics charges against him could be resolved.
The letter targeted Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who has been under intense scrutiny in the aftermath of reports about financial arrangements involving rental properties in New York and a beachfront villa in the Dominican Republic.
Republicans have seized on Rangel's financial difficulties to portray Democrats as out of touch with ordinary Americans and burdened by entrenched corruption.
"Given Chairman Rangel's continuing ethical lapses, he cannot effectively carry out his duties as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). "[Y]ou, as speaker of the House, must insist that Rep. Rangel step down."
Democrats countered that Rangel himself has requested investigations, now ongoing, into the matters and that Republicans have been much more lenient with members of their own party facing ethics or even FBI investigations.
"The American people would be better served if Republicans would stop playing politics and allow the bipartisan ethics committee to do its job," said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami.
He suggested that the GOP was trying to divert attention from a Republican "culture of corruption," which included the sentencing last week of former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials.
Democrats also pointed to Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), whom the Justice Department began investigating in 2006 concerning his dealings with lobbyists. He has remained the senior Republican member of the House Appropriations Committee, with Boehner's support.
Rangel, 78, requested an investigation by the House Ethics Committee in July, following published reports that he was leasing four rent-stabilized apartments in a luxury development in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem. He was using one of the apartments as a campaign office, despite city and state laws requiring that rent-controlled properties be used as a primary residence. He has since moved his office out of that apartment but has remained in the other three.
He is also under investigation for using his congressional stationery to solicit funds for a local college's academic center that will bear his name.
Republicans latched onto the recent admissions by Rangel's lawyer that the congressman had failed to disclose more than $75,000 in rental income from the vacation home in the Dominican Republic and that he had paid no interest on the villa's mortgage. The lawyer said he did not know how the loan was being repaid and was not aware until recently that the interest had been waived.
Congressional ethics rules require that members disclose annually all gifts and gratuities.
The developer for the Dominican Republic property has said that Rangel was just one of several original investors in the property, all of whom had their interest waived in return for their initial investment.
Melanie Sloan, the executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Tuesday's demand that Pelosi strip Rangel of his chairmanship "seems a little premature -- it seems like the ethics committee should do an investigation and we should find out exactly what's going on there."