WASHINGTON — Veteran Rep. Charles Rangel, the raspy-voiced, backslapping former chairman of one of Congress' most powerful committees, was censured by his House colleagues for financial misconduct Thursday in a solemn moment of humiliation in the sunset of his career.
"I brought it onto myself," Rangel told the House. But he also said politics was at work.
After the 333-79 vote, the 80-year-old Democrat from New York's Harlem stood silently at the front of the House and faced Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she read him the formal resolution of censure.
Then, in response, he admitted he had made mistakes, including his failure to pay all his taxes, filing misleading financial statements and improperly seeking money from corporate interests for a college center bearing his name.
But he also declared, "In my heart I truly feel good." He said, "A lot of it has to do with the fact that I know in my heart that I am not going to be judged by this Congress, but I am going to be judged by my life."
It was only the 23rd time in the nation's history that a House member received the most severe punishment short of expulsion. Aside from the embarrassment, censure carries no practical effect and ends the more than two-year ordeal for the congressman who was re-elected to a 21st term last month with more than 80 percent of the vote.
Relief and defiance took over the moment Rangel finished speaking. Somber, Pelosi quietly slipped out of the chamber, but some Democrats gave him a standing ovation. Rangel made it only a third of the way up the aisle when a phalanx of well-wishers stopped and hugged him; he responded by saying something that made them laugh. He was smiling for the rest of the 10 minutes or so that it took to get through his colleagues to exit the chamber, his humiliation past.
Despite the censure, he contended in his response on the House floor that it had been proven that "at no time has it ever entered my mind to enrich myself or to do violence to the honesty that's expected of all of us in this House."
"I am fully aware that this vote reflects perhaps the thinking not just of the members but the political side and the constituency of this body," he told his colleagues. Outside, he told reporters the censure vote was "very, very, very political."
Still, the matter is likely to stain Rangel's half-century in public service. The House ethics committee last month found him guilty of 11 of 13 charges of financial misdeeds, including submitting misleading financial statements and failing to pay all his taxes.
The chairman of the ethics committee, Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, said the censure her committee recommended was consistent with a Democratic pledge to run "the most honest, most open, most ethical Congress in history."
She said Rangel "violated the public trust" while serving in influential positions including chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
Rangel's predicament pained his many friends in the House. His staunchest allies – members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the New York delegation – tried to reduce the punishment to a simple reprimand Thursday, but that effort failed by a vote of 267-146.
Before the final vote, the dapper congressman, wearing a blue suit and blue tie with a blue handkerchief, was humble before his colleagues.
"I have made serious mistakes," he said, apologizing for the "awkward" position his troubles had placed them in. He was at times contrite, saying that members of Congress "have a higher responsibility than most people" for ethical conduct and that senior lawmakers like himself "should act as a model" for newer lawmakers.
A half-dozen members spoke in his defense, arguing a reprimand was appropriate and that censure had been used for members found guilty of sexual misconduct. Lofgren, though, suggested that today, expulsion would be appropriate for those types of misdeeds.
It's a difficult sunset for Rangel's long career. A jovial politician with a distinctive voice, Rangel was re-elected in November with more than 80 percent of the vote despite being under an ethics cloud for more than two years. He has argued that censure is reserved for corrupt politicians – and he's not one of them.
He also has been making a more personal plea, asking colleagues to remember that he won a Purple Heart after he was wounded in combat in Korea, to focus on his efforts for the underprivileged and to understand that he has great respect for the institution he has served for so long. He's tied for fourth in House seniority.
The House ethics committee painted Rangel as a congressman who ignored rules of conduct and became a tax scofflaw despite his knowledge of tax law from his long service on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
Rangel chaired that panel until last March, when he stepped down after the committee – in a separate case – found that he improperly allowed corporations to finance two trips to Caribbean conferences.
Rangel shortchanged the IRS for 17 years by failing to pay taxes on income from his rental unit in a Dominican Republic resort. He filed misleading financial disclosure reports for a decade, leaving out hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets he owned.
He used congressional letterheads and staff to solicit donations for a monument to himself: a center named after him at City College of New York. The donors included businesses and their charitable foundations that had issues before Congress and, specifically, before the Ways and Means Committee.
Rangel also set up a campaign office in the Harlem building where he lives, despite a lease specifying the unit was for residential use only.
He has paid the Treasury $10,422 and New York state $4,501 to fulfill an ethics committee recommendation. The amounts were to cover taxes he would have owed on his villa income had the statute of limitations not run out on his tax bills.
The last previous House censure was in 1983, when two members, Reps. Gerry E. Studds, D-Mass., and Daniel Crane, R-Ill., were disciplined for having sex with teenage pages. Nine House members have been reprimanded, the latest last year when Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C. was punished for yelling "You lie" at President Barack Obama.