Charlie Rangel, hero of Harlem, brought low by corruption charges

It is, depending on your point of view, the sad downfall of a loveable rogue – or comeuppance for a Congressional baron with an outsized sense of entitlement, who had long lost touch with the voters he was supposed to serve.

Either way, Charles Rangel is set to provide some of Washington's most compelling political theatre in years.

On Thursday, the ethics committee of the House of Representatives charged the 80-year-old Representative for Harlem in Upper Manhattan with no less than 13 violations of House rules, from filing incorrect tax returns to improperly using a rent-controlled apartment as a campaign office.

Barring a compromise between his lawyers and the committee, he is likely to go before his peers for judgment in September – the first such ethics trial of a sitting Congressman since 1992. Mr Rangel himself now faces the prospect of an ignominious end to an illustrious 40-year career in Washington politics. For his incumbent Democratic party, already bracing itself for heavy losses in November's mid-term elections, the affair is a nightmare it didn't need.

By any measure, Mr Rangel is one of the most important Democrats on Capitol Hill. First elected in 1970, he was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and between 2007 and 2010 chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, after a decade's service as senior Democrat on the tax-writing panel, one of Washington's great hidden seats of power.

He is a decorated Korean war veteran, and a long-standing advocate of bringing back the military draft – not least as a means of ensuring full racial equality in the military. Mr Rangel has a distinguished record in the civil rights movement, and successfully pressed for US economic sanctions against South Africa, which helped speed the end of the apartheid regime. And at least until the ethics investigations that started in 2008, his gregarious style made him one of the most popular members of Congress.

But no longer. Jo Bonner, the senior Republican on the Ethics Committee, might well tell colleagues that "no one, regardless of their partisan stripes, should rejoice" at what had happened.

In reality, no one is rejoicing more than Republicans at the political ammunition they have been handed – proof for them that the Democrats who have controlled Congress for the last four years have utterly failed to keep their promise to "drain the swamp" of corruption in Washington.

In a year when anti-incumbent feelings are running higher than ever, the charge could be devastating in November, as Democrats know full well. Many of them are now abandoning Mr Rangel, blaming him for not making a quiet deal with investigators and sparing his party the embarrassment of a public trial.

A deal could yet happen, but it is increasingly unlikely. Any such arrangement would have to be approved by Republicans on the Ethics Committee, whose membership is equally divided between the two parties, and they are in no mood to do so.

Another Republican on the panel said yesterday Mr Rangel had been "given the opportunity to negotiate a settlement during the investigation phase". But that phase is over, and "we are now in the trial phase". If convicted, Mr Rangel could escape with a report criticising his conduct. Alternatively, he could be reprimanded or censured by the full House of Representatives, or in the worst case expelled.

Whatever happens, he is the latest proof of how the job of chairing the Ways and Means committee, long considered one of the most powerful jobs in Washington, is jinxed – for Democrats at least.

Back in 1974 Wilbur Mills was caught drunk in his car in the small hours by DC police, along with an Argentinian-born stripper called Fanne Foxe. He gave up his committee post a few months later, and in 1976 retired from Congress. Two decades later Dan Rostenkowski, a Chicago-bred wheeler-dealer who negotiated tax policy with Presidents Reagan and George H W Bush, came to grief on a host of petty corruption charges, and spent a year in a federal prison.

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