Karl Rodney, the organizer of the Caribbean junkets that contributed to the downfall of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), was sentenced today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to two years probation and 500 hours of community service. He was also fined $2,500. District Judge Emmet Sullivan included no jail time in the sentence.
The courtroom was filled with Rodney’s supporters, many of whom made the trip down from New York City. Singer Harry Belafonte offered good wishes by letter. NLPC Chairman Ken Boehm was also in attendance. Boehm said, “I believe that at least some jail time would have been appropriate, but at the same time, Rangel himself has not even been prosecuted and he was guilty of far worse.”
Rodney had previously pled guilty to lying to Congress. During the Justice Department investigation, NLPC received a Grand Jury subpoena to provide photographs, audio recordings, and other materials from a November 2008 conference in St. Maarten.
NLPC President Peter Flaherty attended the event and documented the corporate sponsorship that violated House Rules by companies like Citigroup, AT&T and Pfizer. It was this evidence on which the House Ethics Committee admonished Rangel in February 2010, prompting his resignation from the Ways and Means chairmanship.
Rodney, the publisher of a New York-based newspaper called Carib News, admitted lying to the House Ethics Committee about the source of funds for conferences in the Caribbean during 2007 and 2008. Although he faced up to five years in prison, the plea deal called for a sentence of from zero to six months.
House Rules on travel were tightened in 2007 at the behest of then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the wake of the Jack Abramoff golf trip to Scotland. House travel rules now prohibit members of Congress from accepting travel on multi-day trips from corporations that employ federal lobbyists, either directly or indirectly through third-party groups like the Carib News.
Rodney’s legal representation included Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, best known for his advocacy of slave reparations. (An earlier version of this posting incorrectly identified Rodney as the son of Walter Rodney, a Guyanese political figure assasinated in 1980. We regret the error.)
The Rodney case was referred to the Justice Department for prosecution when it admonished Rangel in February 2010. The Committee also referred Karl’s wife Faye Rodney for prosecution, but she was not charged, reportedly as part of the plea deal with Karl. It was Faye Rodney who tried to prevent Flaherty from attending the St. Maarten event after organizers realized that he represented a watchdog group. Flaherty was detained by the Police Korps of St. Maarten, and subjected to numerous questions, such as his hotel room number, and the names and birthdates of his children.
The Ethics Committee’s report described Rodney’s contortions in attempting to hide the corporate sponsorship. House rules require private sponsors of trips to pre-clear them with the Committee. On a certification form prior to the trips, Rodney checked the “no” box when asked if anyone else was financing the trip, and identified Carib News as the sole sponsor.
Ethics Committee staff members followed up by email and phone to Karl Rodney and a member of his staff named Patricia Louis, who were asked if any other entity provided money or in-kind donations for the conference. Rodney instructed Patricia Louis to tell the staff ‘no,’ prompting the Committee to approve the trip.
Based on this approval, the Ethics Committee exonerated the other members of the Congressional Black Caucus who were also on the junket. They were Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Donald Payne (D-NJ), Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-MI) and U.S. Virgin Islands Delegate Donna Christensen.
The Committee ignored evidence provided by NLPC that these members were well aware of the corporate sponsorship. For instance, Payne thanked each of the sponsors by name and asked for a round of applause. Kilpatrick gushed, “And to the sponsors by the way, all of you, we couldn’t do this, be with you, help Karl if you weren’t here with us so we say thank you very much, you are so important. To all of the sponsors, thank you very much.”
The Ethics Committee is notoriously ineffective, but even with its surprising action against Rangel, it would only go so far. The other junketeers faced no penalty. Similarly, the Justice Department apparently will only go so far, prosecuting a bit player like Rodney, while Rangel faces no criminal investigation.
The Rodney case involved misconduct by the Ethics Committee itself. Rodney was assisted in his deception by an Ethics Committee staff member named Dawn Kelly Mobley, who was admonished by the Committee for her actions. She left the employ of the Ethics Committee, and was hired by Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) as her chief of staff. In mid-2010, Fudge’s office launched a counter-attack on ethics investigations aimed at members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Fudge introduced legislation to curtail the authority of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), and rounded up 19 co-sponsors.
OCE, established in 2008 as the centerpiece of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s campaign to clean up the House, is a separate entity from the House Ethics Committee. OCE is comprised of former House members whereas the Ethics Committee is comprised of sitting members.
The Ethics Committee has the power to conduct investigations, subpoena witnesses, make official rulings and recommend penalties for lawmakers deemed guilty of ethical violations. In comparison, the OCE only has the power to conduct investigations and refer cases to other boards or agencies for further examination.