Rep. Charles Rangel arrives for the health care reform meeting at the Blair House in Washington, Feb. 25, 2010

*While Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) was busy attending President Barack Obama’s bipartisan summit Thursday in an attempt to rescue the party’s health care bill, the House ethics committee formally accused him of accepting corporate money for trips to Caribbean conferences in violation of House rules.

The committee said it couldn’t determine whether the House’s chief tax writer knew about the financing, but found that his staff did — and concluded Rangel was responsible for learning the truth.

At a hastily called news conference Thursday night, Rangel put the blame squarely on his staff.

“Common sense dictates that members of Congress should not be held responsible for what could be the wrongdoing or mistakes or errors of staff unless there’s reason to believe that member knew or should have known, and there is nothing in the record to indicate the latter,” Rangel said. He refused to answer questions.

The ethics committee on Thursday exonerated five other members of the Congressional Black Caucus who also were on the 2007 and 2008 trips to conferences in Antigua and St. Maarten but told them they will have to pay the costs of the trips. The panel’s report did not include any formal charges that could have brought a more serious censure against Rangel.

Meanwhile, Rangel is also mired in a much larger ethics investigation focusing in part on his use of official stationery to raise money for a college center in his name; and his belated financial disclosure of hundreds of thousands of dollars in previously unreported assets and income.

The unreported assets included a federal credit union account worth between $250,001 and $500,000; a Merrill Lynch account valued between $250,000 and $500,000; tens of thousands of dollars in municipal bonds and $30,000 to $100,000 in rent from a multifamily brownstone building in New York.

Rangel’s case is certain to raise questions of whether the 20-term lawmaker, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, can retain his post in an election year, reports the Associated Press.

The Ways and Means chairmanship is especially important this year, when Democrats are trying to overhaul the nation’s health care system and Congress has to decide what to do about billions of dollars in tax cuts Americans at every income level have enjoyed for a decade — but are due to expire in December.