Charles Rangel: What did he gain by walking out of his ethics trial?

Rep. Charles Rangel said he was being treated unfairly by the House ethics subcommittee in his trial for alleged misconduct. By walking out of the hearing, did he create leverage?

Cliff Owen/AP
Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York walks to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct's adjudicatory hearing into his alleged ethics violations in Washington Monday.

Charles Rangel walked out of his congressional ethics trial in protest on Monday. Why did he refuse to defend himself? After all, if the House eventually condemns him (or worse) over alleged financial and fund-raising misconduct, the New York Democrat’s reputation will be irretrievably tarnished.

Congressman Rangel said he was leaving the proceedings because he was being treated unfairly. In a statement issued Monday afternoon, he charged that the ethics subcommittee holding the trial had provided him with its 80-page document of charges and evidence only seven days ago. One week was not enough time to prepare a defense, Rangel said – particularly because he no longer has a team of defense lawyers.

“How was I supposed to deal with this when I received it just days before the hearing without an attorney by my side?” said Rangel in his statement.

The ethics panel denied Rangel’s appeal to delay the trial while he set up a legal defense fund and hired a new legal team. His former attorneys withdrew from the case in October after he ran out of money to pay them, according to Rangel.

Ethics panel members told Rangel that they needed to forge ahead because there is little time left in the congressional session, he charged. In Rangel’s view this means he is being deprived of due process rights because other members do not want his case to infringe on their holiday vacations.

“The committee has deprived me of the fundamental right to counsel and has chosen to proceed as if it is fair and impartial and operating according to rules, when in reality they are depriving me of my rights,” Rangel said in his statement.

What Rangel did not say, but may believe, is that by refusing to defend himself he may in the future be able to depict as illegitimate any findings of guilt by the ethics panel.

But on Monday the Ethics Committee chief counsel and some members of the eight-person bipartisan subcommittee hearing the Rangel evidence appeared exasperated by Rangel’s behavior.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California, chair of the ethics trial, noted that Rangel had sought and received Ethics Committee guidance on setting up a legal defense fund to pay his attorneys as far back as September of 2008, yet never set up such a fund.

In addition, the particulars of the charges against Rangel have been known for years, meaning a team of attorneys would have had ample time to prepare a defense prior to now. Ethics Committee chief counsel Blake Chisam, acting as prosecutor at Monday’s proceedings, told the panel’s four Republicans and four Democrats that there is little dispute “as to any material facts in this case. As a result the case is ripe for a decision.”

In outlining the charges, Mr. Chisam said that among other things Rangel has improperly sent out over 100 letters on his congressional letterhead soliciting $30 million for a Rangel Center for Public Service to be located at City College of New York. Taxpayer-funded staff helped produce and track this fund-raising effort.

In addition, for over 17 years Rangel failed to declare on his federal income tax returns rental income earned by his beach villa in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.

Asked whether he believed Rangel was in fact corrupt, Chisam said “I do not. I believe that the congressman, quite frankly, was overzealous in many of the things that he did, and at least sloppy in his financial – his personal finances.”

Some outside observers said that in the lengthy proceedings of the Rangel ethics case there is indeed lots of blame to go around.

“Mr. Rangel has a legitimate complaint when he says that the Ethics Committee investigation into his conduct – now two years old – has gone on far too long,” said Bob Edgar, president of the nonpartisan citizen advocacy group Common Cause. “Rangel himself bears much of the responsibility for delays in concluding the matter however, and his partisan opponents appear to have further stalled the proceedings.”

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