By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Newspapers have been on his tail for years. He had been under investigation for two years. He spent $2 million on lawyers. He faced charges that he accepted four subsidized, rent-stabilized apartments that he wasn’t entitled to, that he failed to properly report his personal income, that he failed to pay income taxes on an offshore rental property, and that he improperly used his powerful position to raise money for a university school of public service named for him.
Despite the seriousness of the charges, Congressman Charlie Rangel was never in danger of going to jail-or even standing trial. After all, as a member of Congress, he enjoys full immunity from prosecution. And Rangel is not just any congressman; he is the former chairman of the committee that writes the very tax laws he violated.
Rangel simply blamed his failure to pay taxes on inadvertent bookkeeping errors and swore that he never intended to accrue any personal benefit he wasn’t entitled to.
Members of his party had remained loyal to him, refraining from any public criticism. In fact, his 80th birthday party this past summer was attended by many prominent public officials.
The day before the hearing he said, “All I can do is ask for time to be heard. I’m confident that at the end of the day, my constituents’ faith in me, as demonstrated by their overwhelming vote, will be well-founded,” he began, referring to his recent re-election in which he received 80% of the votes. “But we’ll wait and see,” he concluded.
The charade came to an end when he finally found himself before the House Ethics Committee, at which point he was expected to prove his innocence as he had confidently asserted he would.
Instead of tearing apart the allegations against him, Rangel launched into a tirade in which he claimed that the hearing should be postponed until he could raise a million dollars for his attorneys, in addition to the $2 million he had already paid them.
He could well afford to pay with his own money, but he wasn’t interested in doing that, he wanted other people to contribute to a defense fund. His lawyers weren’t interested in his stalling tactics anymore and walked off the case the night before the hearing.
After concluding his remarks, Rangel stormed out in protest, claiming that he was robbed of his due process rights.
He could have presented his side of the story and brought witnesses. He could have cross-examined the government’s witnesses. But he made no attempt to vindicate himself or dispute the claims against him.
With “clear and convincing evidence” to support 11 of the 13 counts against him, he was found guilty as charged.
New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg responded to the news by saying that “Charlie Rangel did an awful lot for New York City and we shouldn’t forget that.” The implication was that justice is served by giving Rangel a slap on the wrist for betraying the public trust with non-payment of taxes and improperly accepting gifts of subsidized apartments. After all, he’s done so much good during his career writing tax laws for the little people of the country, shouldn’t that entitle him to a few perks, such as breaking the law with impunity?
At the end of the day, Rangel had nothing to fear. He will receive a lecture in Congress and it will be over. Perhaps he will have to pay a fine and part with the tax money he held on to all these years, but he won’t lose his job, and he won’t have to go to jail.
Is that fair? Is that liberty and justice for all? What type of example does that set? What does that teach Americans about the fairness of the system? What does that teach Americans about liberty and justice for all?
Within the past couple of weeks, Bruce Karatz was to be sentenced for backdating stock options. The former CEO of KB Home was found guilty and faced six years in jail for violating accounting rules that the media had played up as though an awful crime had been committed. He was lucky that he was sentenced by Judge Otis B. Wright, a sensible person, who didn’t fall victim to what The Wall Street Journal termed “prosecutorial misconduct.”
Judge Wright said he couldn’t see putting Mr. Karatz away in jail for six years for a crime that did no harm to his company or shareholders.
Holman W. Jenkins Jr., writing in The Wall Street Journal on November 17, 2010, states: “We suppose that it’s humanly understandable that, finding themselves compelled to bring these cases, federal prosecutors stretched and kneaded the evidence to fulfill the media’s stereotype of backdating as theft and fraud against shareholders…
“By the estimate of University of Iowa’s Erik Lee, some 2,000 public companies must have engaged in backdating… Some 150 companies eventually restated their past results to conform to the proper rule for exercising such options. Yet only a few executives were singled out for prosecution, in a manner that left the observer scratching his head as to why the justice roulette wheel chose some but not others.
“Further reason for pause: The handful of subsequent convictions seemed to turn less on the act of backdating than on the self-preserving prevarications executives uttered once the posse arrived on their doorstep.”
“One critique can be found in the title of a book by Boston defense attorney Harvey Silverglate: ‘Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.’ Mr. Silverglate believes that only a mobilization of ‘civil society’ can stop what he calls rampant abuse of prosecutorial discretion.
“In contrast, former prosecutor Joseph diGenova puts the onus on [Department of Justice] DOJ overseers: ‘if anyone thinks it’s anything other than prosecute-at-any cost, then they are wrong…. The department has been AWOL in supervising the ethics of its prosecutors,’ he told the [American Bar Association] journal.”
And then there was the trial last week of an admitted terrorist, who participated in the 1998 Al-Qaeda bombing of the American embassy in Tanzania which killed 224 people, 12 of them Americans. Thanks to the protections offered him by the court, he was acquitted of 284 of 285 charges.
How does that make you feel?
Those of us who care about other Jews, about our fellow Americans, and about ourselves must raise the flag for what is right and fair, for liberty and justice for all. We have to find the moral conviction and courage to fight for people who have been trampled on by an out-of-control system. While we do not condone wrongdoing of any sort, we cannot passively stand by as our brother is doomed to rot in jail because of the machinations of rogue prosecutors, in league with a trial judge who shed all pretense of impartiality in the trial and sentencing.
There are those who accuse us of defending a convicted felon. There are some who wonder why we dedicate ourselves to fighting for Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin’s right to receive a new trial. They want to know what motivates the people who raise money for his legal defense.
When justice is railroaded, everyone suffers. Sholom Mordechai is not only a victim; he is also a symbol of a sinister trend in law enforcement that puts all of us at risk.
Naturally, to those of us who are concerned with his case, the shocking disparity in the way he was treated, speaks to flaws in the justice system that can ensnare anyone. Bias, prejudice and lack of egalitarianism have no place in an American courtroom. Yet, experts are telling us we encounter it in a systemic way.
Make no mistake about it. This country’s justice system ranks well above that of almost every other nation in the world, and serves as an example for others to learn from. But due to flaws in the system that can and should be corrected, unscrupulous government employees can game the system in myriad ways, and use the laws of the land in the pursuit of self-serving agendas. When faced with a blatant example of this abuse, we must protest that everyone deserves to be treated fairly.
Look aside from the justice system and see what is transpiring in the area of airport security checks to gauge what happens when government’s primary motivator become the pursuit of an agenda. When self-serving agendas drive policy, the result is irrationality and chaos. Changes in airport security checks demonstrate just how far people are willing to go to impose skewed reasoning on the public in order to justify their political agendas.
Young children, little old ladies in wheelchairs, and masses of harmless and helpless people at airports are being treated worse than common criminals. Good people are put through unnecessary and humiliating routines. In the name of safety, basic common sense and fairness are ignored.
Everyone knows that the young child of Mid-America and the handicapped senior citizen on her way to a warm winter in Florida pose no danger to the flying public. It is no secret that the only people who blow up planes are radical Muslims. It is well known that Israel faces the greatest threat from Arab terrorists, yet in that country you are not forced to remove your shoes to get on a plane. They also do not force you to undergo a humiliating pat-down at whim.
The reason is that in Israel they are actually concerned about security. The security system at Ben Gurion Airport is not designed to satisfy an edgy public or politically correct politicians. It is not there just to offer the appearance of safety. It is there to ensure that the people who fly can expect a reasonable degree of calm knowing that they will not be blown up mid-air.
In Israel, security officials are trained to find bombers. They are not looking for seemingly suspicious objects; they are looking for dangerous people. They do not trust machines to inspect people, they trust people to evaluate other people and determine who is likely to be suicidal or on a mission to destroy.
They single out those people for inspection and allow the innocent to pass without humiliating them.
They accept that terrorists fit a profile and therefore have no issue with profiling travelers. There is no reason that this can’t be done here in the United States if the government’s security officials were truly interested in your safety. But they aren’t. There are other agendas at work here. The TSA and others are attempting to promote the fiction that all people are equal. That you and I, the young Iowa corn husker, the North Dakota grandma, the Iraq War veteran, and Abdul Ali Muhammad from Yemen all deserve to be treated the same. While that is true most of the time, it is wrong when you are looking for a bomber.
Were the TSA agents trained in profiling, the entire hubbub currently confronting the flying public would be hushed. But the administration will never admit to that, for it would blow up their liberal agenda.
This is but one example of what happens when people in power pursue agendas instead of justice, when politics is allowed to trump the voice of reason and common sense advancing a cause instead of the rights of the innocent, and when something is taken to the extreme instead of to its logical conclusion.
We have to be thankful that in this great country, the people have the right to protest and to rally for reform. We have to exercise that right to lobby for change. The constitution affords us protections and liberties that are unavailable to the same degree in any other country. We should be grateful for those blessings and not feel apologetic about utilizing them to reverse injustice, and to rein in those who make a career out of abusing the power of their position.
It is our hope that as we continue to battle for truth, integrity, honesty and fairness, those who have unfortunately been railroaded by abusers of the system will finally experience true and impartial justice.