House panel rejects Rangel's request to delay corruption trial

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 5:53 PM

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) pleaded with a House panel Monday to delay his long-awaited public trial on corruption charges, saying he needed time to find a new lawyer, but his request was rejected and the session went ahead without him.

The panel later deemed the charges against Rangel to be "uncontested" and decided to deliberate on them, dispensing with the trial phase of the case.

In the hearing, conducted by an eight-member panel of Rangel's congressional peers, Rangel faced allegations that he broke congressional rules in his personal finances and his fundraising efforts for a New York college. He and his previous legal team parted ways last month.

"I object to the proceeding," Rangel told the House panel. "With all due respect, since I don't have counsel to advise me, I'm going to have to excuse myself from these proceedings."

He said he cannot afford a lawyer at present because his campaign account has been depleted.

The panel later went into a three-hour closed session and emerged to announce a unanimous decision to end the trial phase, moving into deliberations on the 13 counts of Rangel's alleged violations.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who chairs the full House ethics committee, said the panel found that the case presented by committee staff, including 549 exhibits, would be considered "uncontested factual record." She said the eight lawmakers now would deliberate and vote on the 13 counts. "No material fact is in dispute," Lofgren said.

The panel needs to find "clear and convincing evidence" that a violation has occurred, she noted. The next phase of deliberations will occur in private with no time limit. A public declaration will come once the panel members have voted on all 13 counts. Any finding of guilt will be sent to the full ethics committee, which is in charge of administering sanctions against Rangel.

"We submit to you that there are no genuine issues as to any material facts in this case," R. Blake Chisam, chief counsel of the ethics committee, told the lawmakers before their first private huddle. "As a result, the case is ripe for decision," he said.

Earlier, as the subcommittee conducting Monday's hearing considered ending the trial phase in the case, Rangel's office issued a statement from the lawmaker in which he said he would refuse to resign.

"They can do what they will with me because they have the power and I have no real chance of fighting back," Rangel said. "Now, I am going forward -- not backwards -- to do the job I was elected to do. That is to serve my district and to serve my country, as I have tried to do for the past 50 years. In the end, I hope that I would be judged by my entire record that determines that I have been a credit to the House."

As the hearing opened Monday morning, Rangel asked that he be allowed to accept either pro bono legal work or reduced-fee support, but such actions might violate congressional rules forbidding gifts. Abbe Lowell, one of Washington's premier white-collar defense lawyers, attended the hearing and said during the break that he would join Rangel's defense if the panel postponed the hearing to allow Rangel time to raise money to pay Lowell's fees.

Rangel has already burned through $2 million in legal fees, draining funds from his now wiped-out campaign account. When he told his former legal team that he would not be able to pay the estimated $1 million to finish the case, they withdrew from the case, he said Monday. He now wants to set up a separate legal defense fund that could provide legal support, but it may take weeks or months to finance the operation.

"I am being denied the right to have a lawyer," he complained. He argued that "50 years of public service is on the line."

The law firm that formerly represented the congressman, Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, subsequently issued a statement denying that it had quit over money.

"This law firm did not seek to terminate the relationship and explored every alternative to remain as his counsel consistent with House ethics rules prohibiting members from accepting pro bono legal services," the statement said. It said the firm would have no further comment.

The 40-year House veteran arrived in the hearing room inside the Longworth House Office Building precisely at 9 a.m., the scheduled start time, with his wife and other family members trailing behind.

He sat at a desk in front of the dais, in a room that is usually reserved for the House Administration Committee, which oversees mostly mundane matters of internal congressional management. Winking at photographers, Rangel brought with him some yellow legal pads, pens and a massive binder containing the case against him.

Lofgren, who also chairs the adjudicatory panel, said she intended to begin the hearing with opening statements from the staff attorneys who are acting as prosecutors, followed by a statement from Rangel. But first she asked Rangel if he was acting as his own attorney, setting him off on a rambling speech that outlined his legal and financial predicament.

When the hearing resumed after the closed session, Rangel was not present.

Chisam, the staff director of the full ethics committee who oversaw the nearly two-year investigation into Rangel's finances, then laid out the case against Rangel, showing some of the roughly 500 exhibits of evidence compiled in the matter.

While not defending Rangel on the facts involved, Democrats questioned Chisam in a manner to suggest that Rangel was not intentionally corrupt, but instead was sloppy in his record-keeping. This has been the best hope of Rangel supporters - that the trial would salvage his reputation in a way that does not make this ethics case the defining touchstone of a 40-year career.

"I see no evidence of corruption," Chisam said in response to questions from Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), singling out the issue involving Rangel's effort to raise tens of millions of dollars from corporations to finance a center at City College of New York named after the congressman. "The congressman, quite frankly, was overzealous in many of the things he did."

Before they parted ways last month, Rangel and his team of lawyers and communications experts 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 faced 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.

Rangel's office declined to comment for this story before Monday's hearing. 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 Lofgren, 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 Rangel, 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 on 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.

Three hours after deliberations began, aides announced that the lawmakers had not concluded and would resume Tuesday.

Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.

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