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House panel to begin trial of Rangel on ethics charges

By Paul Kane
Monday, November 15, 2010; A04

With no lawyers expected at his side, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) is scheduled to begin his defense Monday against allegations that he broke congressional rules in his personal finances and his fundraising efforts for a New York college.

The public trial, conducted by an eight-member panel of Rangel's congressional peers, will be the first of its kind since 2002. It will be all the more remarkable for Rangel because he no longer has a defense team.

After spending more than $2 million from his campaign account on lawyers and communications experts, Rangel and his team parted ways in September. They had repeatedly clashed over his approach to the defense, including his impromptu decision to deliver a more than 30-minute speech on the House floor in mid-August.

"I am not going away," Rangel, 80, said during that speech, imploring the ethics committee to hold the trial immediately so he could have his case heard before the midterm elections. "Don't leave me swinging in the wind until November."

Now, after winning his 21st term two weeks ago, the former assistant U.S. attorney will get his first dose of something resembling a courtroom since the mid-1960s. Expected to last about a week, Rangel's trial is to be followed two weeks later by a trial of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). She is accused of improperly using her office's influence in helping get federal bailout support for a bank in which her husband was a large investor.

The logistics of the cases are somewhat unclear because the ethics committee tends to operate in deep levels of secrecy. The prosecution will be represented by staff lawyers for the committee who handled the two-year investigation of Rangel; the congressman is expected to deliver an opening statement that would likely mirror much of his August floor speech.

It is unclear whether witnesses will be on hand or if committee lawyers will just read transcripts, and, if witnesses are present, whether Rangel will cross-examine them under oath.

Rangel's office declined to comment for this story. The lawmaker has acknowledged that he broke some rules, but he said that he did so unknowingly and that his mistakes involved no acts of corruption related to legislation.

The jury, effectively, is a committee of four Democrats and four Republicans, led by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the chairman of the full panel, and Michael McCaul (R-Tex.).

Known officially as an adjudicatory subcommittee, the panel hit an impasse in late July and could not reach a deal with the 40-year veteran of Congress, who had to surrender the powerful chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee during the investigation.

After they conclude the public phase of the trial, members of this subcommittee will huddle in private to consider the 13 counts against Rangel. If he is found guilty on any count, they will send a report to the full ethics committee to consider what level of sanction should be administered.

Members of the ethics committee quarreled publicly over the timing of the Rangel and Waters trials, with Republicans accusing Lofgren of putting off the cases until after the midterm elections in an effort to duck the issue.

Lofgren responded by calling their public rebukes an "unprecedented statement" and laid out the "substantial" schedule for the preliminary legal motions that had to be taken before the public trial could begin.

After much concern in Democratic circles about the possible impact of the ethics cases, neither Rangel nor Waters played much of a role in the fall campaigns. Rather than trying to tie the lawmakers to other endangered incumbents, Republicans focused almost all their efforts in linking those lawmakers to the unpopular House speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The high profile of the Rangel case owes more to his stature than to the allegations against him. Just two years ago, he stood atop Congress as one of its most powerful barons, controlling pieces of legislation overseeing taxes, trade and federal entitlement programs. Now, his campaign accounts depleted from the legal fees and from an unexpectedly robust challenge in the Democratic primary, Rangel is a changed man.

After the initial charges were revealed in July, Rep. Gene Green (D-Tex.), who chaired the subcommittee conducting the initial investigation, told reporters that his panel had recommended Rangel be "reprimanded" for the financial violations. That would require a vote by the full House, but it is a lower level of punishment.

The case against Rangel centers around the investigative subcommittee's findings that he improperly used his congressional office to raise money for a New York college wing named in his honor, that he violated city rules through his rent-controlled apartments in Harlem, that he did not pay taxes on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic and that he did not properly disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal financial assets.

A separate investigative panel reprimanded Rangel in February for accepting corporate-financed travel, a minor infraction that was nonetheless enough to force him to surrender his chairmanship while the more serious investigation continued.

Knowing that the subcommittee had already recommended something far less than expulsion, Rangel defiantly told colleagues in August that he would not resign, as President Obama publicly recommended. Rangel said they should "fire your best shot at getting rid of me through expulsion."

"I deserve and demand a right to be heard," he said in that speech.

That "right" begins now.

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