Rep. Charlie Rangel, the flamboyant Harlem Democrat, was working frantically Wednesday to strike a deal with House colleagues that will spare him the kind of open ethics trial that has not occurred there since 2002.
But to escape that fate Rangel would have to admit guilt and accept punishment for charges ranging from failure to pay taxes on rent from a Dominican Republic villa to using his influence as chairman of the powerful Ways & Means Committee to secure donations for a namesake school in his district.
Rangel's reluctance to admit guilt has frustrated Democratic leaders eager to avert a full-blown trial that would allow Republicans to portray the party in power as corrupt and out of touch with voters, sources said.
That's the last thing Democrats need as they head into an midterm election where dozens of Democratic House seats are in jeopardy.
"In the fall, Charlie Rangel will be the advertisement that sinks marginal Democrats," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant in New York City. "If played properly by the Republicans, Rangel becomes the symbol of congressional corruption versus public morality, and abuse by Washington versus public good."
The Rangel trial would be the first of its kind in the House since former Democrat Rep. Jim Traficant was expelled from Congress in 2002 on bribery and tax fraud charges. Traficant eventually went to prison.
Rangel's legal team was working Wednesday to cut a deal with the ethics panel, which last week announced it had determined the 80-year-old lawmaker had violated the rules of the House. If no agreement is reached, a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers will hold a hearing Thursday afternoon to air the actual charges.
Rangel, who has been elected to 20 terms in Congress, told The Washington Examiner late Wednesday that no deal was imminent.
"I haven't heard anything," Rangel said.
The media has already outlined a wide range of allegations against Rangel. They include failure to pay taxes on $75,000 in rental income he earned from a beachfront villa in the Dominican Republic and his wrongful leasing of four rent-stabilized apartments in New York City at a savings of $7,000.
Rangel also stands accused of using House stationery to solicit funds for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service, a division of the City College of New York.
In connection with that school, the ethics panel has been investigating whether Rangel used his position on the tax-writing panel to create a tax shelter for Nabors Industries, an oil company. Nabors reportedly saved tens of millions of dollars thanks to the loophole. About the same time lawmakers approved the shelter, the company's CEO gave $1 million to the Rangel Center.
While Democratic leaders are pushing Rangel to accept a deal to avoid a public trial, some Democratic lawmakers predict Rangel, a decorated Korean War veteran, will fight the charges.
"I don't believe that a person who would lead troops behind enemy lines in the Korean War in the dead of winter is someone looking to avoid adversity," said Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., who served on the ethics committee for six years.