WASHINGTON – Shortly after veteran Rep. Charles Rangel of New York walked out of his ethics trial in protest, a House panel began closed-door deliberations Monday on 13 counts of alleged financial and fundraising misconduct that could bring formal condemnation.
Only recently one of the most powerful members of Congress, Rangel was reduced to pleading in vain for colleagues to give him time to raise money for a lawyer before taking up the charges. The 80-year-old congressman left when they said no, and the rare proceeding — only the second for this type of hearing in two decades — went on without him.
An ethics committee panel of four Democrats and four Republicans was sitting as a jury in the case late Monday. The official acting as prosecutor said the facts were so clear there was no need to call witnesses, and panel members apparently agreed.
If the panel members decide Rangel violated any House rules, the full committee will hold a hearing on how he should be punished. The most likely sanction would be a House vote deploring his conduct.
Rangel, a 20-term congressman representing New York's famed Harlem neighborhood, implored the ethics panel for further delay, saying that "50 years of public service is on the line." But the panel basically decided that the 2 1/2-year-old case had gone on long enough — and Congress had little time left to deal with it in the lame duck session that commenced Monday.
Rangel said he had run out of money after paying his previous attorneys some $2 million and needed time to set up a legal defense fund to raise an additional $1 million.
Until last spring, Rangel had wielded great influence as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, a gravelly voiced, outgoing figure who raised millions for fellow lawmakers' campaigns. He relinquished that chairmanship in March after being admonished by an ethics panel for taking corporate trips to the Caribbean in violation of House rules. There was no further punishment for that, but the current charges are another matter.
After Rangel left Monday's hearing, House ethics committee chief counsel Blake Chisam pushed for a decision on the 13 counts of fundraising and financial conduct that allegedly violated House rules. Chisam, assuming the role of prosecutor, played a video of Rangel's speech on the House floor in August in which the congressman acknowledged that he'd used House stationery to raise money for a college center named after him, and that he'd been tardy in filing taxes and financial disclosure statements.
He said then that he never intended to break any rules.
Chisam told the panel of four Republicans and four Democrats that there were no questions "as to any material facts in this case. As a result the case is ripe for a decision."
Chisam also said, "I see no evidence of corruption" by Rangel. Rather, he suggested, the congressman was "overzealous" and "sloppy in his personal finances."
Chisam said Rangel could have legally raised money for the Charles B. Rangel Center at City College of New York by asking the ethics committee for permission to solicit nonprofit organizations. However, he would not have been able to use congressional letterheads or employees in the fundraising, as he is charged with doing.
The counsel also said Rangel used a subsidized apartment in New York City as a campaign office when the lease required that it be for residential use only.
"At the same time, the landlord was evicting other tenants at an increased rate" for failing to follow the same lease terms, Chisam said.
Several members of the panel criticized Rangel's lawyers for leaving the case just weeks before the hearing.
Vermont Democratic Rep. Peter Welch said that no law firm should be "taking the money ... and kicking their client by the side of the road."
Rangel's former lawyer, Leslie Berger Kiernan, did not immediately respond.
If the ethic panel finds that Rangel broke the rules, the House ethics committee could recommend that the full House vote to condemn his conduct.
"My family has caught hell" in the investigation, Rangel said in asking for more time. Earlier this fall, he had pleaded for a quick decision before the November elections. He won re-election.
The ethics committee chairman, Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., told Rangel that time was an issue since this Congress will soon adjourn. He responded that his fate should not depend on the congressional calendar.
"I truly believe I am not being treated fairly," Rangel said.
The ethics investigation goes back to at least July 2008. Only former Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, who was expelled from the House after a criminal conviction, has faced a similar trial since current House ethics procedures were adopted two decades ago.
Key charges portray Rangel as a veteran congressman who thought he could ignore rules on disclosing his assets, and improperly used official resources to raise money for a college center that was a monument to his career.
Another allegation that caught the public's eye was his failure to declare rental income to the IRS from a resort unit he owned in the Dominican Republic.
The charges allege violations of:
_A House gift ban and restrictions on solicitations. Rangel is accused of using congressional staff, letterhead and workspace to seek donations for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. The requests usually went to charitable arms of businesses with issues before Congress, including Rangel's Ways and Means Committee.
_A U.S. government code of ethics. Several allegations fall under this code, among them: accepting favors (the Rangel Center donations) that could be construed as influencing Rangel's congressional duties; acceptance of a rent-subsidized New York apartment used as a campaign office, when the lease said it was for residential use only, and failure to report taxable income.
_The Ethics in Government Act and a companion House rule requiring "full and complete" public reports of a congressman's income, assets and liabilities each year. Rangel is charged with a pattern of submitting incomplete and inaccurate disclosure statements. He filed amended reports covering 1998 to 2007 only after the investigative ethics panel began looking into his disclosures. He belatedly reported at least $600,000 in assets.