How Rangel’s trial would work

A public organization meeting by the House ethics committee on Thursday is the first step toward a trial for Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).

It’s the ethics committee’s choice to hold the organizational planning meeting, which Rangel said he would attend, ensuring a media circus.

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Rules do not require the public meeting, so the panel may be trying to raise the stakes by imposing another deadline for Rangel to back down and agree not to contest the charges.

“It may be that avoiding public hearings is really what both sides are wishing for,” said Robert Walker, a former chief counsel and staff director of the Senate and House ethics committees.

The two sides could come to an accommodation at any point before a trial would begin even after Thursday’s meeting. In recent years, public trials have become quite rare, as the media have changed and cable news shows have added more airtime.

The ethics committee has almost complete flexibility in terms of when to hold the hearings and could do so as early as August, although procedural motions are likely to push the process until at least mid-September, beginning either just before or just after Rangel’s Sept. 14 primary. Committee rules provide at least 15 days for attorneys to see all of the evidence the ethics committee plans to use against Rangel in the trial, but the panel could allow Rangel’s attorneys far more time to prepare.

The last public ethics trial of a member occurred in 2002 when Rep. Jim Traficant (D-Ohio) contested allegations that he forced members of his staff to work on his farm, took bribes and forced aides to kick back portions of their salaries. Traficant, who had previously been convicted of multiple felonies, was later expelled from Congress.

If Rangel does not back down, the public trial could last anywhere from three days to a week. Afterward, the full ethics committee would determine if Rangel is guilty of any of the alleged ethics violations.

If found guilty, Rangel would face a sanctions hearing in which both his attorneys and those of the ethics committee would argue for or against a particular punishment — either a letter of reproval, a formal reprimand, censure or expulsion.

Whatever the panel recommends would go to the floor as a privileged resolution for action by the full House. A full two-thirds vote is required for expulsion, while anything less would need only a simple majority.

Rangel no doubt is aware that Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) survived an embarrassing ethics scandal in 1990, put the past behind him and, after 20 years, is now the chairman of the powerful House Financial Services Committee.

After a prolonged investigation that fueled months of headlines, Frank waived his right to a public trial and admitted improperly trying to intervene in his personal assistant’s probation and arranging for the improper dismissal of his parking tickets. The House formally reprimanded him on a vote of 408-18. Other votes for more serious punishment, including censure and expulsion, failed.