Business as Usual?

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The ethics violations changes against Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY-15th) involve the fact that there’s a university endowment named in his honor and financed by a company that does business with Rangel.

The Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York was funded by a $1 million donation by businessman Eugene Isenberg. Rangel then helped arrange a tax loophole that saved Isenberg’s company several million dollars.

Rangel is, however, not the only member of congress to be “honored” in this way. According to an article by Eric Lipton in the New York Times:

Nearly a dozen current or former lawmakers have been honored by university endowments financed in part by corporations with business before Congress.

The donations from businesses to the endowments ranged from modest amounts to millions of dollars, federal records show. And the lawmakers, who include powerful committee chairmen or party leaders, often pushed legislation or special appropriations sought by the corporations.

There’s an endowed chair at the University of Hawaii honoring Sen. Daniel Inouye. The chair was purchased (in part) by a cruise ship line for which Inouye arranged some favorable legislation.

There’s the Trent Lott National Center at the University of Southern Mississippi. The Lott center received $1 million from military contractor Northrop Grumman. The company benefited greatly from its relationship with the former senator, who helped the company in an effort to bring defense contracting jobs to Mississippi.

The University of Massachusetts at Boston houses the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. The Kennedy Institute got a $5 million donation from drug company Amgen. In 2009 Sen. Kennedy promoted legislation that would protect biotechnology companies like Amgen from generic drug competition.

The list goes on and on.

Rangel knows this, explaining last month in The Hill that:

“It was plainly permissible under House rules… to allow CCNY to name the Center for him. The House Ethics Manual expressly encourages Members to ‘lend their names to legitimate charitable enterprises and otherwise promote charitable goals.’ ”

Rangel noted that other members of Congress have “donated their papers for institutions bearing their names under virtually identical circumstances.”

This is true. Granted, the other members aren’t, like Rangel, accused of using official House stationery to raise money for the centers named in their honor, but still.

The widespread practice of politicians using corporate relationships to honor themselves through academic institutions doesn’t make Rangel innocent, but it does make it clear that perhaps the problem is bigger than one congressman from Harlem. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer