House ethics panel deliberates after Rangel walks out

A House panel hearing ethics violation charges against New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel decided Monday to accept the prosecutor's evidence as uncontested after the Harlem Democrat walked out of the proceedings.

Rangel's decision not to participate — after arguing that it was unfair for him to face the charges without legal representation — short-circuited what was expected to be a weeklong proceeding involving a dozen witnesses.

Instead, after briefly considering and then rejecting a motion to delay, the eight-member panel of the House Ethics Committee decided to forgo witnesses and hear only the presentation of Blake Chisam, chief counsel for the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. They began deliberating Rangel's fate later in the day.  

Facing an empty table where Rangel would have been sitting, Chisam methodically laid out the allegations against the veteran lawmaker, who is charged with failing to declare rental income from a Dominican villa, improper solicitation of donations on congressional letterhead and misuse of a rent-controlled apartment as a campaign office.

If the adjudicatory subcommittee finds Rangel guilty, the full 10-member Ethics Committee will recommend what sanctions to level against the 80-year-old. An expulsion is considered unlikely, but the committee could decide Rangel should be reprimanded or censured, measures that would require a full vote by the House.

"Though provided the opportunity, respondent has not contested the evidence; nor has he indicated that he intends to put on a case," Chisam said. "Put simply, the record before you is the record, the facts are the facts, and the counts are ripe for a vote."

After questioning Chisam about specifics of the case, the panel spent the afternoon considering the charges behind closed doors, but adjourned without a decision. Deliberations were set to resume Tuesday.

The rare ethics hearing, the first of its kind since 2002, was even more striking because the congressman under scrutiny was absent, except for video clips from an Aug. 8 speech Rangel gave on the House floor that Chisam played to buttress his arguments. In the address, the veteran lawmaker apologized for any violations, saying they were the result of carelessness, not corruption.

The 20-term congressman struck a much less contrite tone Monday, when he made a brief but dramatic appearance before the ethics subcommittee to ask that his hearing be delayed. He complained that the two-year investigation had caused him to rack up a legal tab of nearly $2 million and would cost another $1 million. When he was unable to convince his lawyers that he would be able to pay the mounting bills, they withdrew as his representatives this fall, Rangel said.

Rangel said he had not had time to raise money through a legal defense fund to hire new lawyers. He said he should not be asked to continue without representation just so the committee could finish the hearing before the end of the current, lame-duck session of Congress.

"Fifty years of public service is on the line," Rangel said. "I truly believe that I'm not being treated fairly.

"There's a lot of pain that I feel. … I love this Congress. I love this country. I think I'm entitled to more than is being suggested."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), chairwoman of the Ethics Committee, noted Rangel's statement but asked Chisam to proceed with introducing the more than 500 pieces of evidence gathered in the course of the 21-month investigation.

That prompted Rangel to declare that he had to leave.

"I object to the proceeding and, with all due respect, since I don't have counsel to advise me, I'm going to have to excuse myself from these proceedings, because I have no idea what this man has put together over two years," he said before exiting the room, trailed by a horde of camera-toting media.

The panel decided to continue, though several members chastised the law firm that had been representing Rangel for dropping him.

"It's an astonishing display of professional irresponsibility, in my view," said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

Sarah Fait, a spokeswoman for the firm, Zuckerman Spaeder, said in a statement, "This law firm did not seek to terminate the relationship and explored every alternative to remain as his counsel consistent with House ethics rules prohibiting members from accepting pro bono legal services."

Rangel stepped down from the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee this year as the Ethics Committee examined his financial dealings. In July, he was charged with 13 House ethics violations.

He is accused of using one of his four rent-controlled apartments in New York as a campaign office; using his congressional office to solicit corporate contributions for a public affairs school established in his name; failing to report rental and investment income on his disclosure forms; and failing to pay property taxes on a rental property in the Dominican Republic.

The hearing is only the second of its kind since current House ethics procedures were adopted two decades ago. The first occurred in 2002, when then-Rep. James Traficant (D- Ohio) faced allegations of taking bribes and tax evasion. He was ultimately expelled from the House after he was convicted on federal corruption charges.

On Monday, Republican members of the panel sought to cast Rangel's actions as violations that brought him personal benefit, a suggestion Democrats questioned.

"In all of your investigation of this matter, do you see any evidence of personal financial benefit or corruption?" Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) asked Chisam.

"I see no evidence of corruption," Chisam responded, adding: "Do I believe, based on this record, that Congressman Rangel took steps to enrich himself based on his position in Congress? 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 personal finances."

"So you're saying, then, sir, that sloppiness is a defense?" asked Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R- Texas) several minutes later.

"I don't believe it's a defense at all," the chief counsel responded. "In fact, I believe that it's a violation of the rules."

Michael A. Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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