Now that change has become the theme of both parties in the upcoming general election, it is necessary to remind ourselves that the one thing that apparently will never change in this political rat warren of a town is the arrogance of power — the opinion of some of those elected to high places that the ethical and moral rules don’t apply to them.
The evidence of this belief in a double standard is overwhelming, supported by constant and dumfounding repetition. History, it seems, is never a warning, never a teacher. A congressman succeeds in ousting the opposition’s supreme leader in a scandal, becomes the leader himself, and is brought down for some of the same things that ended his predecessor’s career. A chairman of an important congressional committee is guilty of ethics violations and several years later one of his successors on the same committee is forced to resign under similar conditions and is ultimately sent to jail.
At the same time his party’s presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, is sounding a thunderous call for changing Washington, it is disclosed that chairman Charles Rangel of the House Ways and Means Committee has failed to declare on his tax returns some $75,000 in rental income he earned from a vacation property in the Dominican Republic. That’s not a huge amount of money in today’s world. But it takes on considerable significance when it involves a member of Congress responsible for writing the nation’s tax laws.
Not to worry, his lawyer tells us. The congressman simply will file amended returns for the years in question. Would you like to try the same thing? Don’t.
The chances are the IRS would look askance at your oversight, contending that not declaring income is strong evidence of intent to defraud the government. It’s not like arguing over whether you should be able to deduct certain items. It’s the act of hiding income, which, of course, we all know is a way of life among some service and professional people who get paid in cash.
Rangel, however, is not someone who does odd jobs or runs a bar where he fudges on the night’s receipts. He is among a handful of the most powerful men in Congress. He is a highly respected Democratic stalwart and, until now it seems, a model citizen blessed with an abundance of charisma and intelligence, a media favorite with an extraordinary presence and sense of humor. He has been in the House a long time. For that very reason alone one would think he would not fall into such an obvious, avoidable trap.
The House Ethics Committee now has the matter before it, adding it to a list of other Rangel real estate transactions in New York City and the obvious question as to whether the fact he received favorable treatment on the leasing of four Manhattan apartments violated House rules. Rangel also apparently bought the Dominican villa on an interest free loan, which may or may not raise other questions. The vacation property has been expanded since he became the owner.
It is doubtful the IRS would bring any criminal charges in this case especially if after the returns are amended he will be left without any federal tax liability as his lawyer contends. He may, however, have to pay a penalty. That depends on how many days he spent at the Dominican villa, which he has declared one of his favorite escape places. For those who wish to rent their properties and depreciate them for tax purposes, the government allows only 14 days of owner occupancy a year.
Rangel contends that his wife keeps all the books and he didn’t even realize that he had to declare the rental income. Really? Here’s a guy who has been on the Ways and Means Committee since 1975 and is now its chairman and we are to believe he has no understanding of the tax code he helped to write? As a tax simpleton who owned a second home on the beach for years, even I understood the restrictions. There were only two must rules — make sure every cent of rent was declared and use the property only two weeks a year unless you could show you went for a weekend to make repairs.
While this may not rise to the same level as some of the scandals that continuously plague the national legislature, the appearance of impropriety looms large once again at a time when change has become the byword of the presidential election. Well, the more things change, etc., etc.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)