Tuesday, November 16, 2010
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By DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI
The House ethics committee ruled on Monday that there was evidence to support 13 counts of misconduct by Representative Charles B. Rangel, and began considering whether to formally convict and recommend punishment against him.
The ruling came after a dramatic and puzzling appearance by Mr. Rangel, 80, in which he protested that he could no longer afford to pay his lawyers, and indignantly walked out of the proceedings, calling them unfair.
Committee members were unmoved. Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, noted dryly that Mr. Rangel, a Harlem Democrat, was responsible for paying his lawyers and that he had been advised by the committee beginning in 2008 to form a legal defense fund to do so.
With Mr. Rangel absent, the panel listened to its chief counsel as he methodically presented the evidence against Mr. Rangel, which was based on 549 exhibits, dozens of witness interviews and thousands of pages of financial documents. Members then met in executive session and later announced they had found the facts in the charges against Mr. Rangel to be “uncontested.”
Those charges included accusations that Mr. Rangel had accepted rent-stabilized apartments from a Manhattan developer, failed to pay income taxes on rent from a Dominican villa and solicited charitable donations from individuals with business before Congress.
Mr. Rangel’s decision not to mount a public defense startled some members of the committee; he has been publicly expressing his eagerness to tell his side of the story for more than a year, and promising his constituents that he could disprove the accusations.
But the walkout spared Mr. Rangel the embarrassment of being publicly confronted with the unsavory details of the case.
And, given that he has not sufficiently challenged the accusations against him, his strategy allowed him instead to plead his case in the court of public opinion by questioning the legitimacy of the process.
“I am being denied a right to have a lawyer right now because I don’t have the opportunity to have a legal defense fund set up and because I can’t afford another $1 million,” Mr. Rangel said before making his hasty departure. “I truly believe I am not being treated fairly.”
An ethics subcommittee is scheduled to reconvene Tuesday morning and consider whether to formally find Mr. Rangel guilty on each of the 13 counts. If he is found guilty on any of the charges, the entire ethics committee would deliberate on a suitable punishment, which ethics experts say would most likely be a letter of reprimand or a formal censure. While the committee has the power to expel, that has happened only rarely and is considered highly unlikely.
Whatever the outcome of the case, the spectacle of the hearing marked a steep downfall for Mr. Rangel, who for decades has been a towering figure in Washington and New York politics. His tenacity, distinguished military record, quick wit and fund-raising prowess made him one of the most popular and mighty Democrats in Congress. He rose to be chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in 2007, but stepped down from that post last year amid ethics accusations.
Mr. Rangel’s complaint on Monday that he could no longer pay for a lawyer frustrated some members of the committee, and underscored the way the case has dragged on. According to campaign finance reports, Mr. Rangel has already paid $1.6 million to a law firm, Zuckerman Spaeder. But the firm dropped the case last month, after the congressman said he would not be able to pay the estimated $1 million to finish the case.
Ms. Lofgren pointed out that Mr. Rangel, who has significant assets according to his amended financial disclosure report, could find another way to pay for his defense.
“There is no prohibition on an individual using their own funds to pay for counsel,” she said.
After his departure from the hearing room, even Mr. Rangel’s trademark bravado was used against him. In August, Mr. Rangel rankled members of Congress by taking to the House floor to apologize and demand that the public hearing be concluded before the November election. In summarizing the case against Mr. Rangel on Monday, committee lawyers played several clips from that speech in which the congressman admitted wrongdoing but asked for leniency
“I don’t think that apologies mean that this is a light matter,” Mr. Rangel said in one clip played at the hearing, his booming voice filling the hearing room even in his absence. “This is serious.”