Point of View Columns

Weekend Edition – 8.6.10

The summer continues even as we contemplate the first glimpses of the arrival of autumn. Every day of every week provides yet more opportunity for us to understand that we understand but very little about human behavior and motives……but we continue to try to comprehend what is sometimes incomprehensible as we contemplate events of the past week:

Collateral Damage
“Collateral damage” is a military term used to refer to the incidental harm to people or structures that may be the result of attacking a specific target. In the case of Congressman Charles Rangel, there has been significant collateral damage, an antiseptic term that does little to convey the true damage that real people and real institutions endure.
Among the charges leveled at Congressman Rangel, there have been allegations that he “led a group on a Caribbean junket that was paid for by corporate favor-seekers”. This is a quote from the New York Times, a publication historically known for its reputation for truth and accuracy.
That reputation takes quite a hit, however, as the facts regarding the “junket” is that the referenced event was the Multicultural International Business Conference hosted by Carib News. The fact is that Congressman Rangel did not “lead” a group; he was an attendee at the Carib News conference, a well-known event in the Caribbean American community during its fourteen annual iterations.
Carib News is a New York City-based weekly newspaper. Continuously published for almost three decades, Carib News has the largest publication in the English-speaking Caribbean community in the United States of any other weekly newspaper.
It has been defined by its commitment to providing a reliable source of information about the Caribbean to its readers and it has also served as a bridge from America to the sometimes disparate elements of the Caribbean community.
That Congressman Rangel and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus would attend makes all the sense in the world once one realizes the growing presence of Caribbean American citizens in their districts. The attendance of other local state and elected officials makes sense for the same reason. The attendance of scores of Caribbean heads of state, ministers and business leaders makes sense because of the bridge established painstakingly by Carib News.
It is an easy one-liner to characterize a conference in Jamaica, the Bahamas or Grenada (all sites of the Carib News conference in past years) as a junket but the facts so easily available to the New York Times and the House Committee on Ethics rebut that characterization. Typically over twenty sessions and panel discussions are held over a period of two and one-half days.
I have attended these conferences on several occasions and can attest to the absence of “junketeering”. There have been no Abramoff-style golfing tournaments and “complimentary gifts” of value. There has been the hard work of international bridge building and constituency service and while medals should not be handed out to Congressman Rangel and the other members of the Congressional Black Caucus for doing their jobs, neither should they be subjected to attack and investigation.
And all the while, Carib News, a family-owned small business, the kind of business that is the bedrock of the American economy, suffers the “collateral damage”. Being unfairly and incorrectly identified as the sponsor of a “junket” unfairly taints all aspects of its business operations and requires its owners to commit resources to defense instead of business development and marketing. It is an unreported and sad tragedy that represents the “collateral damage” that is too often a part of the media battles of the day.
The New York Times proclaims that it publishes “All the news that’s fit to print”. One would hope that the truth would be a part of that news.

Rangel Agonistes
For over two years the Ethics Committee of the United States House of Representatives has been engaged in an exhaustive investigation of the affairs of Congressman Charles Rangel. This investigation has culminated in a set of charges against him that encompass a general view that he has engaged in conduct that is inappropriate for a member of Congress.
The definition of “appropriate conduct” in Congress bears some historical perspective. There was the caning and beating of Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate in the 1856. There was Senator Joseph McCarthy in the halls of Congress ruining and wrecking the lives and careers of thousands of Americans on during a witch hunt for mythical communists. There was Congressman Wilbur Mills cavorting with a stripper in a fountain in 1974. And most recently there was Senator John Ensign directing consulting business to the husband of his mistress.
In the instance of McCarthy, he was censured, Mills left office in disgrace. There is no known penalty imposed on imposed on Congressman Preston Brooks, Senator Sumner’s attacker and Senator Ensign serves the people of Nevada in the Senate to this very day. The point of these few historical examples of less than stellar conduct in the United States Congress is that one has to wonder what standards are being applied to Congressman Rangel when it comes to appropriate conduct.
For example, a key charge against him is that he used his office to secure donations from corporations in order to fund the Charles Rangel Center for Public Affairs at the City College of New York. Since several of these donors are large corporations with interest in various legislative matters before Congress it has been asserted that there is potential for conflict in the solicitation and securing of these donations. Although the Committee on Ethics report does not point out an instance of a quid pro quo – actions taken by Congressman Rangel in return for donations to the Rangel Center, the potential for the perception of impropriety is cited.
This would seem pretty clear except for certain facts, and at this point I will present examples of just three sitting members of Congress who have eponymous centers at universities, centers that have received donations from corporations with a very real interest in many legislative matters before Congress:
-Sen. Thad Cochran – Thad Cochran Endowment for Entrepreneurship at Mississippi State University – donations from Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman.
-Senator Daniel K. Inouye – Dan And Maggie Inouye Distinguished Chair in Democratic Ideals at the University of Hawaii – donations from Bank of Hawaii, Norwegian Cruise Line
-Senator Mitch McConnell – McConnell Center for Political Leadership; McConnell Chair in Leadership at the University of Louisville – donations from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Alliant Health System (now Norton Healthcare)
The “Point of View Weekend Edition” has deadlines, so there are 531 other members of the House and Senate who have not been scrutinized. However, there is an obvious question to be asked. If these aforementioned centers are receiving donations from corporations with significant and ongoing interests in a wide range of legislation before Congress in the past, present and future, what could possibly be so egregious about the Rangel Center and Congressman Rangel’s behavior to warrant the current sanctions leveled against him by the House Committee on Ethics?
Perhaps one question can be answered by Senators McConnell, Inouye and Cochran and all the other members of Congress who have been able to wrap themselves in a cloak of self-righteousness and feigned innocence – can justice be achieved if prosecution is selective?

Have a great weekend!

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