WASHINGTON — The long-awaited House of Representatives ethics trial of Rep. Charles Rangel began Monday largely without Rangel, who walked out of the proceedings after his impassioned request for a postponement in order to get new lawyers was denied.
The 80-year-old Harlem Democrat, who's charged with 13 counts of ethical and financial violations, told a special panel of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct that his original legal team dropped him after his legal bills reached nearly $2 million, with another $1 million projected for his trial defense.
With Rangel absent, an eight-member panel concluded that the facts of the case against him weren't in dispute, which effectively ended the trial phase of the case. The panel then went behind closed doors to deliberate.
Rangel, who relinquished the chairmanship of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee under pressure earlier this year, is accused of failing to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in income and assets, improper use of several rent-controlled apartments in his Harlem district, questionable fundraising efforts for a college center in New York that bears his name, and failing to pay taxes on property he owns in the Dominican Republic.
If he's convicted, the full ethics panel is likely to propose that he be reprimanded by the full House, the mildest of three forms of punishment after expulsion and censure. A reprimand would amount to a public embarrassment that would have no political impact on Rangel, who was elected to a 21st term earlier this month despite his legal troubles.
Blake Chisam, an ethics committee lawyer acting as a lead prosecutor in the case, seemed to provide ammunition for a mild punishment when he told the panel that there was little evidence that Rangel was corrupt or personally benefitted financially from his alleged transgressions.
"I see no evidence of corruption — it's hard to answer the question 'personal financial benefit,'" he said. "I think the short answer is probably no. Do I believe, based on this record, that Congressman Rangel took steps to enrich himself based on his position in Congress? I do not."
But evidence abounds, Chisam added, that Rangel was "overzealous" in some areas and "sloppy" with his personal finances.
Earlier in the day, a weary-looking Rangel stood alone before the panel and declared that "I'm not being treated fairly." He accused it of trying to wrap up a 21-month investigation too quickly, simply because the 111th Congress will adjourn soon.
"I want you to know that I don't think it's fair that I participate in any type of proceeding, if in fact what you are basically telling me, that the political calendar will not allow . . . enough time to allow me to get a lawyer at this crucial point in my life," Rangel said about 40 minutes into the trial. "Fifty years of public service is on the line. I truly believe that I'm not being treated fairly and that history will dictate that notwithstanding the political calendar, I am entitled to a lawyer during this proceeding."
The committee then went to executive session to consider his request. When they returned, the ethics committee chairman, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said the trial would proceed.
She noted that Rangel had asked for and received guidance from the committee in September 2008, March 2009, last month and again earlier this month on how he could pay his legal bills.
Still, some committee members expressed concern over Rangel's lack of legal representation. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., compared the situation to "Bleak House," Charles Dickens' scathing novel about the British legal system in the 1800s.
"And the book ends when all the resources of the estate have been drained by the estate lawyer . . . None of the problems of the estate have been resolved," Welch said. "If this were a court of law, and a month before a capital case came to trial, after two years of preparation, the lawyer withdrew, a judge would not permit that to happen."
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