Jim Traficant's trying times of 2002 could be repeated for Rep. Charles Rangel

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; A02

The last time a congressman was put on trial before his congressional peers, he showed up late for his hearing, accused investigators of faking evidence and cracked lame jokes to break the tension.

In a three-day hearing in July 2002, a panel of lawmakers grilled Rep. Jim Traficant, a vituperative Ohio Democrat accused of an array of egregious ethics violations. Ultimately, his colleagues agreed that Traficant had broken House rules and he was ejected from the Capitol. Their decision may have been helped by the fact that a federal court had already convicted Traficant of taking bribes, filing false tax returns, and forcing his Hill aides to perform chores at his farm in Ohio and on his D.C. houseboat.

Now, eight years later, Rep. Charles B. Rangel is facing the likelihood of the same kind of trial before the House ethics committee in September. Once again, an ornate congressional hearing room will be converted into a courtroom, and a member of Congress will become a defendant to be judged by his peers.

On Thursday, the ethics committee is expected to hold a meeting to outline the charges its investigative panel made against the New York Democrat. It has been scrutinizing Rangel for allegedly failing to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial assets, mishandling taxes on a Caribbean villa, misusing several rent-controlled apartments in Harlem and doing a legislative favor for someone who gave $1 million to a private center named for Rangel at the City College of New York.

Rangel has acknowledged mistakes on his financial disclosure forms and mishandling his taxes, and he privately agreed to apologize in public for some House rules violations. But he has objected to suggestions that he improperly used his public office or helped donors who raised money for the college building.

Unless the 80-year-old congressman acknowledges some wrongdoing to settle the case, the September trial -- which is public and is expected to be televised -- will proceed.

The forum will mimic a courtroom trial. Rangel and his attorneys will be allowed 30 minutes for an opening statement to rebut the claims. Both sides can then call any witnesses they want. Rarely one to let someone else do the talking for him, Rangel may testify on his own behalf.

Rangel's judges will be four members of the ethics committee -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- who are tasked with deciding his guilt or innocence. His accusers will be four other committee members. Staff lawyers will present the evidence gathered in the investigation.

Once all the evidence is heard, the panel will vote on each charge and, if Rangel is found to be in violation, prepare for another hearing to recommend a punishment. That could be a reprimand, a censure or possibly expulsion. It would then take a two-thirds vote of the entire House to approve or reject the punishment.

In recent statements, Rangel vowed to fight and said he looked forward to rebutting the allegations. "I'm in the kitchen, and I'm not walking out," he said at a news conference Friday.

In July 2002, the defiant ego of a different congressman was in full view. An often profane showman who was known for wearing the world's worst toupee, Traficant routinely ended his explosive, stem-winding floor speeches by quoting the "Star Trek" line "Beam me up!" He had warned his colleagues and political supporters before his ethics trial that he expected to be expelled and considered the public hearing his "last hurrah."

He did not disappoint. Asked why he was late for his own trial one day, Traficant said, "I was on other media broadcasts trying to demean you and everybody else."

There has been flurry of speculation that Rangel is trying settle the case and avoid a trial. Talks between Rangel and the committee broke down last week after the congressman refused to admit to some of the charges. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairman of the ethics committee and of the subcommittee that would conduct the trial, denied rumors Tuesday that she had met with Rangel. In an interview, she said that her only contact with Rangel was on the House floor Thursday, when she handed him a letter informing him of the pending trial.

Lofgren would not comment on reported talks between the committee's and Rangel's attorneys, but she said that in the past, it has been the practice for the committee's nonpartisan lawyers to have discussions with the accused lawmaker's counsel.

If both sides' lawyers do reach a deal, the ethics committee is almost certain to accept it. "We've never rejected the nonpartisan recommendation, as a committee, for a settlement. Because, I think, the nonpartisan staff . . . are totally familiar [with the case], they sat through every deposition, they've looked at all the documents and evidence," said Lofgren, who was also one of the ethics committee members on the investigative subcommittee in Traficant's trial. She added that that any plea would include a report outlining the violations Rangel agreed to accept.

It is unusual for Congress to remove one of its own. Traficant was one of just two members tossed out since the Civil War. The other was Michael "Ozzie" Myers of Pennsylvania, who had been convicted in 1980 in the Abscam scandal, for taking money from an undercover FBI agent impersonating an Arab sheik. Myers compared the experience of being expelled to "the electric chair."

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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