Rangel walks out of ethics trial as congressional panel does not dispute charges against him

Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, saying "50 years of public service is on the line," implored a House ethics panel Monday to postpone his ethics trial until he can get a new lawyer.
By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 12:30 AM

In a day of high drama and a staged walkout, a jury of Rep. Charles B. Rangel's peers ended the public phase of his House ethics trial Monday after just a few hours, finding that the facts alleged against him were not in dispute.

With the New York Democrat absent for much of the process, the panel agreed unanimously that Rangel had inappropriately housed his political committees in a rent-controlled building, had used his congressional office to raise millions of dollars from corporations with business before his committee, and did not pay some taxes and fully disclose his assets.

But the subcommittee determining Rangel's fate did not reach a verdict on whether those actions broke congressional rules. After three hours of deliberation behind closed doors, the eight-member panel, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, announced that it would resume talks Tuesday morning.

"No material fact is in dispute," Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee, said of the charges against Rangel. The public phase of the trial concluded with the panel agreeing to take as fact the expansive volume of evidence gathered by staff investigators, declining to hear any witnesses.

Rangel, the once-powerful committee chairman who oversaw tax and trade policy, walked out of the proceedings in protest less than an hour into the process. With his political campaign account drained and a dispute going on with his most recent legal advisers, Rangel, 80, entered the hearing room as his own counsel. He pleaded for a delay so he could find time and financing for a new legal team.

"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," Rangel said, speaking without notes and interrupting Lofgren as he stood before the lawmakers.

Fresh off winning a 21st term, Rangel said he has spent more than $2 million from his campaign account on two legal teams, forensic accountants and media advisers. For the past month he has been unable to afford legal representation, and he is barred by the new strict ban on gifts from receiving pro bono legal help.

Unconvinced by his pleadings - Rangel had spent the past several months demanding a speedy trial - the subcommittee continued with its work after he left.

The panel will determine whether there is "clear and convincing evidence" that a violation of congressional rules occurred, Lofgren noted. A public verdict could come as early as Tuesday morning, once the panel members have voted on all 13 counts of violations alleged by an investigative subcommittee in July.

Any finding of guilt, requiring a majority vote of Lofgren's panel, will be sent to the full 10-member ethics committee, which would determine sanctions against Rangel. The original investigative team recommended that he face a public reprimand, which would require a full House vote of approval but is less severe than a formal censure or expulsion.

According to the July report, Rangel improperly used his congressional office to raise money for a college wing named in his honor, violated New York City rules by housing his political committees in his rent-controlled apartments in Harlem, did not pay taxes on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic and did not properly disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal financial assets. This occurred while he served as the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee or its chairman; the panel has oversight of tax issues.

He resigned from that position last spring after being admonished for a minor ethical infraction involving accepting corporate-financed travel.

Rangel did little Monday to dispute the allegations against him. In the past, he has acknowledged some wrongdoing, maintaining that it was unintentional and not part of a corrupt scheme for his personal benefit.

In the only public sign of good news for Rangel, the lead ethics investigator agreed that his actions were not the work of a lawmaker angling to enrich himself through a quid pro quo. R. Blake Chisam, the top aide who oversaw the nearly two-year investigation, noted that Rangel could have properly raised seven-figure checks from corporations and chief executives for his college charity if he had not tasked his taxpayer-funded staff to help or used official congressional letterhead.

"I see no evidence of corruption," Chisam said in response to questions from Democratic lawmakers. Noting that sloppiness is not an excuse for breaking the rules, he described Rangel as "overzealous in many of the things he did."

After Rangel's walkout from the proceedings, his office issued a statement saying he will not resign and will move forward with his legislative work.

"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."

Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.

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