- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2010

Capitol Hill’s most celebrated ethics trial in years continued Monday without the defendant after Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, walked out on the proceedings, claiming he was not given the time to prepare a defense and lacked the money to pay for an attorney to represent him.

The 80-year-old Mr. Rangel, a one-time chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and one of the most powerful black lawmakers in Congress, stunned colleagues at the start of an adjudicatory hearing of the House Committee on the Standards of Official Conduct, announcing he would not offer a defense in the probe into charges he abused his office and violated House rules on financial reporting and fundraising.

“Fifty years of public service are on the line,” an emotional Mr. Rangel told the panel of four Democrats and four Republicans on Monday morning before departing. “I truly believe I am not being treated fairly.”

With Mr. Rangel absent, R. Blake Chisam, the panel’s chief counsel, laid out the particulars of the indictment. Several times, he replayed video clips of Mr. Rangel acknowledging missteps or reporting failures in past speeches. Mr. Chisam said Mr. Rangel has not challenged any of the evidence in the record, and the panel had enough evidence before them to vote immediately.

“The facts here are the facts. The omissions are the omissions. The inaccuracies are the inaccuracies,” he said. “The case is ripe for decision.”

But under questioning from Rep. G.K. Butterfield, North Carolina Democrat, Mr. Chisam said the record did not directly prove that Mr. Rangel tried to profit personally from the purported infractions.

“I see no evidence of corruption. It’s hard to answer the question of personal financial benefit …,” Mr. Chisam said. ” I believe that the congressman, quite frankly, was overzealous in many of the things that he did, and at least sloppy in his personal finances.”

The 13 counts fall into four broad categories, charging that Mr. Rangel used congressional stationery and other official resources to help raise money for a New York City educational center named after him; that he made significant omissions on his congressional financial-disclosure forms; that he improperly used a rent-controlled apartment as a campaign office; and that he failed to report income from a rental villa he owns at a resort in the Dominican Republic.

The case has been an embarrassment to congressional Democrats, who promised to clean up corruption on Capitol Hill when they took power nearly four years ago. A second ethics case against another prominent black House Democrat, Rep. Maxine Waters of California, is set for Nov. 29.

Compounding the Democrats’ discomfort was the fact that the Rangel hearing was the first official business of the lame-duck session of Congress that kicked off Monday, just two weeks after the party’s big losses in the Nov. 2 midterm vote.

The congressman from Harlem, who easily won re-election to a 21st term this month, represented himself before the panel of four Democrats and four Republicans, having abruptly parted ways last month with Zuckerman Spaeder, the Washington law firm that had been representing him in the two-year investigation. Mr. Rangel said he had run up $2 million in legal bills and faced another $1 million just for counsel to represent him in the public trial - a bill he said he could not pay.

“My family has caught hell as a result of what’s been out there,” he said.

He also complained that the House panel accelerated the hearing in order to conclude by the time Congress adjourns at the end of the year. He told the panel he had not had time to review the evidence compiled by committee investigators or speak to witnesses cited in the pending charges.

Committee investigators this summer recommended that Mr. Rangel be reprimanded, but not expelled from the House, for his actions. Efforts to settle the case without the need for a public trial broke down, and Mr. Rangel complained Monday that he had unsuccessfully pressed for a speedier trial when he still had legal counsel.

If the panel members decide Mr. Rangel violated any House rules, the full committee will hold a hearing on how he should be punished.

Mr. Rangel’s boycott did not halt the proceedings, which are the first public ethics trial for a member of Congress since Ohio Democratic Rep. James Traficant was expelled in July 2002 after a criminal conviction on corruption charges.

After a brief break Monday morning, the panels chairwoman, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat, rejected a motion to grant another delay in the case and opened a hearing into the evidence against the veteran New York Democrat. Mr. Rangel did not return as the hearing proceeded.

Mrs. Lofgren noted that the panel had advised Mr. Rangel of all the evidence and allegations against him in mid-June, and had even advised him on ways to raise funds to pay for new legal representation. She also noted that it was Mr. Rangel who dismissed his legal team a month ago as the ethics case was reaching a climax. Mr. Rangel told reporters after he left the hearing room that he had been advised that any effort to raise funds for his legal defense would constitute an illegal “gift” under congressional rules.

Several committee members criticized the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder for what they said was abandoning its client just as matters were reaching a climax, but the firm said it had tried to find a way to continue representing the congressman.

“This law firm did not seek to terminate the relationship and explored every alternative to remain as [Mr. Rangel’s] counsel, consistent with House ethics rules prohibiting members from accepting pro bono legal services,” the firm said in a statement Monday. “Out of respect for Congressman Rangel and the House ethics committee, we will not comment further at this time.”

In a brief afternoon session - again with Mr. Rangel not in attendance - the ethics panel voted to move to a closed executive session to consider each of the 13 charges. Mrs. Lofgren said that a defense brief previously submitted by Mr. Rangel’s old legal team, as well as a June 29 written statement he submitted to the panel, would be included in the committee’s deliberations.

The messy proceedings raised fresh questions of the congressional ethics process, and whether the system of members policing members was still viable. At one point, one of Mr. Rangel’s colleagues on the panel referred to him as “Charlie” before quickly correcting himself.

“You don’t have the same precedents and rules of evidence and procedure you have in a true legal trial,” said Gregory Maganian, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, “so there’s a lot more room for posturing and political maneuvering.”

Several members Monday noted that the ethics panel is perhaps the least popular committee assignment in Congress.

“You get a pretty strong sense that [the Rangel] proceeding is not going to go well, however it turns out,” said Mr. Maganian. “They say that members of Congress badly want to get on television, but that may not be the case here.”

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