Rep. Rangel likely to represent himself at November ethics trial

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) will likely represent himself at his mid-November ethics trial, setting up a potential spectacle less than two weeks after what’s expected to be a disappointing — if not devastating — election for Democrats.

Rangel and his attorney, Leslie Berger Kiernan, and her legal team parted ways earlier this month, according to sources, leaving little time before the Nov. 15 trial for another lawyer to take the case and prepare.

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It is unclear whether Rangel or Kiernan severed the attorney-client relationship, though Rangel had complained publicly about how much he was spending on legal bills. Neither Rangel’s office nor Kiernan returned a request for comment.

Some experts argue the ethics committee cannot afford the negative publicity of further delaying the trial to allow another attorney to prepare Rangel’s defense — and it could be that Rangel now wants to mount that defense himself.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) has sole authority to schedule the hearings. But Public Citizen’s Craig Holman said that such a delay is highly unlikely and that Lofgren is under no obligation to reschedule since Rangel failed to hire a replacement.

“Additional delays would reflect poorly on the committee itself and provide no benefit to either congressional caucus,” he said. “Delays would also lead to more public criticism that the ethics committee is not willing or capable to carry out its duties.”

The ethics committee in July charged Rangel with 13 violations of House ethics rules. He has maintained he is innocent of all the charges.

Members of Congress can use campaign funds to pay legal costs, but Rangel's funds dwindled quickly as he was forced not only to pay legal bills but also to defend himself in a September primary. As of Oct. 21, Rangel had $184,000 in cash on hand and $36,000 in debts, according to Federal Election Commission reports. He raised $107,300 in September and October, including $1,075 from George Dalley, who departed as his chief of staff after an ethics committee report found that he knew about the corporate funding of a Caribbean trip the panel investigated and said was improper.

Kiernan, a white-collar criminal expert at Zuckerman Spaeder, has represented Rangel for nearly two years as the ethics scandal unfolded and grew. Rangel paid the firm more than $1.4 million during that time, but in August complained in a rambling speech on the House floor about devoting $2 million to his legal defense. Those remarks, coming just months before the election, angered Democratic leaders, who are wary of a repeat performance in an ethics trial that will likely last hours and hours and extend over several days.

At one point during the August floor speech, Rangel said Kiernan might be able to continue working on a pro bono basis. He also said he expected Democratic leaders to help him pay his legal bills, a claim that had Democratic leaders rolling their eyes, according to one Democratic leadership aide.

But any sort of pro bono work for a member of Congress would run up against congressional rules prohibiting gifts. Zuckerman Spaeder is also barred from donating the legal limit of $10,000 to a Rangel legal defense fund because it employs lobbyists.

A second ethics trial, for Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), is scheduled for Nov. 29 and will most likely move forward as planned, watchdogs said.

This post initially misstated the amount of money Rangel received in contributions from his former chief of staff, George Dalley. It has been corrected.