- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The scheduled Nov. 15 start of Rep. Charles B. Rangel’s ethics trial is in jeopardy, because the former Ways and Means Committee chairman no longer has a defense team.

The New York Democrat and lawyers for the Washington firm of Zuckerman Spaeder have parted company, according to people inside and outside Congress familiar with the breakup. They spoke on the condition of anonymity Tuesday because they were not authorized to discuss the development publicly.

The law firm declined to comment.

The chairman of the House ethics committee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat, has not said whether the Nov. 15 trial date she set is still valid. The committee has charged Mr. Rangel with 13 counts of ethical wrongdoing, primarily involving his fundraising and finances.

Mr. Rangel, one of the nation’s most prominent and powerful black lawmakers, has paid the law firm more than $1.4 million from his campaign account, according to Federal Election Commission records. He has maintained he is innocent of the most serious charges and pressed for a quick hearing.

But if Mrs. Lofgren and other committee members insist on going forward Nov. 15, it would be difficult for Mr. Rangel to find an attorney who could catch up with an investigation that began in the summer of 2008. Mr. Rangel, who is running for re-election in his Harlem district next week, could decide to represent himself.

The development also could affect the way ethics committee lawyers, acting as prosecutors, present their case to an ethics committee panel that will act as judges.

Committee lawyers have been lining up witnesses, expecting to face experienced defense lawyers who are familiar with every aspect of the case. The committee lawyers might present a more simplified case with fewer witnesses if Mr. Rangel represents himself.

If Mr. Rangel is found to have violated House rules, punishment could range from a report criticizing his conduct to a House vote to expel him - although the latter course is seen as unlikely. Other possibilities are House votes deploring his behavior.

The charges against Mr. Rangel include failing to disclose at least $600,000 in assets and income in a series of inaccurate financial-disclosure reports to Congress and using a rent-subsidized New York apartment for a campaign office, when it was designated for residential use.