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Charlie Rangel and the farce known as congressional ethics

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, November 16, 2010;

Charlie Rangel's trial began with an admonition from House ethics committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) that the matter should be conducted "with the dignity and decorum befitting any proceeding before the House of Representatives."

Talk about setting a low bar.

Within minutes of its opening Monday morning, the trial degenerated into exactly the level of dignity and decorum we have come to expect from our lawmakers.

Rangel immediately requested a postponement of the trial - never mind that the New York Democrat had spent the last three months demanding that the trial be expedited. The man who until recently had sway over hundreds of billions of dollars as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee was now claiming that he was too indigent to hire a lawyer. Half an hour into the public hearing he had demanded for so long, Rangel announced that he was leaving.

"I object to the proceedings, and I, 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 told his eight colleagues, who wore expressions of surprise and amusement.

Rangel, in his agitation, stepped away from his microphone as he berated the panel members. This forced the C-SPAN sound man to rush forward with a boom microphone, and caused problems for the stenography services, one of which transcribed the beginning of Rangel's diatribe this way: "RANGEL: (OFF-MIKE) On several occasions I've spoken with (inaudible). I've spoken with the chair. And I have (inaudible). . ."

After Rangel departed, he treated reporters who chased him down the hall to more of his treatise on fairness and justice. The committee members huddled in private, then decided to proceed with the trial of Rangel in absentia, as if they were a Hague tribunal judging an at-large war criminal.

This was but the latest act in the ongoing farce known as congressional ethics. Rules are so flexible, and enforcement so lax, that even instances that look like outright influence-buying don't get prosecuted. And there's no sign that the situation will improve, as key figures make noises about abolishing the new Office of Congressional Ethics, a semi-independent body designed to make ethics investigations more transparent.

Now comes Rangel, who seems determined to take down with him any remaining credibility of the ethics committee. "I am being denied a right to have a lawyer," he informed the committee with righteous indignation.

"You may hire whoever you wish as a lawyer," the chairwoman told him. "That is up to you."

There is some truth to Rangel's complaint. His law firm, Zuckerman Spaeder, withdrew from the case after his trial date was set, and after Rangel had paid them at least $1.4 million. (The firm says it "did not seek to terminate the relationship.")

Rangel, after a tough reelection campaign (and the loss of fundraising clout associated with his committee chairmanship), has little campaign money left to pay another lawyer, and House rules prevent him from accepting pro bono help. (Celebrated criminal lawyer Abbe Lowell, seated with Rangel's family in the hearing room Monday morning, was willing to take the case for a pittance.)

Still, it's difficult to feel sorry for Rangel. He could pay for lawyers by selling off his villa in the Dominican Republic (the one for which he's accused of avoiding taxes - one of the 13 charges against him). Or he could have maintained better relations with his legal team, rather than publicly rejecting their advice in a speech on the House floor.

Rangel sauntered into the hearing room - a chamber much less grand than his former Ways & Means lair - wearing a striped tie as loud as the TV test pattern. Rangel smiled as if arriving at a cocktail reception, then stood at attention at the defense table until the committee members walked in, five minutes later.

After opening statements, Lofgren asked Rangel, alone at the defense table, if he was represented by counsel. The 80-year-old lawmaker interpreted this as an invitation to make a speech. He delivered a lengthy complaint about the process and a reaffirmation of his innocence. After several minutes of this, the chairwoman interrupted. "Mr. Rangel?"

"If the chair is suggesting that I conclude my remarks," Rangel said - Lofgren nodded her agreement - "then I would do that." But not before he made another statement, this one invoking his wartime service and his work for the New York state legislature in the 1960s.

The prosecutor attempted to enter his 549 exhibits into the record. "Is there objection?" Lofgren asked.

Rangel took this as a cue to make another lengthy speech. Lofgren eventually interrupted. "Mr. Rangel, if you could be seated," she requested.

Rangel, ignoring the chairwoman, remained on his feet - the preferred position of a man about to stage a walkout.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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