A weary Rangel mounts defense in ethics trial

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) plans to defend himself before a jury of his Congressional peers Monday without the assistance of an attorney in a fight for his personal reputation and possibly his career.

Few believe Rangel’s job is on the line because expelling him would require a two-thirds vote in the lame-duck session where Democrats still hold the majority, and Rangel is beloved by many of his colleagues.

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Yet, Rangel faces the trial bruised and battle-worn after more than two years of fighting accusations in the press and a 21-month long ethics committee investigation that ended with 13 counts of violating House ethics rules. Rangel, 80, was stripped of his powerful Ways and Means Committee gavel early this year after an initial ethics probe into a corporate-funded trip to the Caribbean said he should have known that his aides were trying to evade ethics rules.

The years of negative publicity and his drawn-out defense that pushed the specter of the trial into campaign season has angered House Democratic leaders and forced some of his colleagues to return campaign contributions from him. He has complained about spending more than $1.4 million on lawyers and said he has exhausted his funds and his ability to raise them to pay for an attorney to defend him during the rare public House ethics adjudicatory hearing.

Rangel and his attorney, Leslie Berger Kiernan, and her legal team parted ways in October, leaving little time before the trial for another lawyer to take the case and prepare. House ethics rules do not bar members of Congress from using attorneys on their staff as counsel, but Rangel told a New York TV station that he planned to defend himself.

“I already notified [the ethics committee] that as a result of them taking so long that I have exhausted my abilities to raise the funds which are necessary to move on,” he told NY1 Sunday. “All I do is just ask for the time to be heard, and I am confident that at the end of the day my constituents’ faith in me, as demonstrated by their overwhelming vote, will be well-founded.”

The station caught up with Rangel on Sunday at AME Zion Church, where he spoke about civil rights icon, Dr. Dorothy Height, who died in April.

He is scheduled to appear before a special ethics adjudicatory panel at 9 a.m., although he said he was unsure if the hearing would move forward as planned.

“I don’t even know whether they’re going to move forward tomorrow,” he added. “We’ll have to see what we see.”

On the eve of the trial, a conservative watchdog group charged Rangel with misusing his National Leadership PAC to pay for some of his legal expenses. The group, the National Legal and Policy Center, put out a statement Sunday on its website, charging Rangel with tapping his leadership PAC for $293,000 to pay for his main legal-defense team and another $100,000 to pay lawyer Lanny Davis, who mainly performed public relations work for Rangel before the two parted ways last year.

Members of Congress are allowed to use their campaign committees to pay legal expenses related to their campaigns or official duties but are not allowed to cut checks from their leadership PACs, which are designed as a way for lawmakers to donate to other candidates.

Rangel did not comment about the alleged misuse of his leadership PAC.

An eight-member ethics subcommittee of four Democrats and four Republicans is scheduled to hear 13 charges of violations of House ethics rules. Rangel has maintained he is innocent of all the charges and has said ethics investigators overstepped their jurisdiction and trampled on his constitutional rights.

He is accused of improperly using his office to solicit donations for a school of public policy in his name at the City College of New York, of using a rent-stabilized apartment in Harlem for his campaign office, of failing to report more than $600,000 on his financial disclosure report and of failing to pay taxes on rental income from a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic.

In his written statement submitted by his attorneys in July, Rangel said the investigative subcommittee that brought charges against him “acted beyond the scope of its authority” and did not give him enough time to provide a defense, violating the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause. He called their findings “deeply flawed.”

The first hours of the trial will likely consist of opening statements, according to sources familiar with the trial process and House ethics committee rules. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) who chairs the ethics committee and the adjudicatory subcommittee, will provide opening remarks, followed by the ranking member of the subcommittee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas).

The chief counsel of the ethics committee, Blake Chisam, will then make an opening presentation of the case against Rangel, who will follow with his own statement outlining his defense. Chisam will then present their case for all 13 charges and Rangel will rebut those charges.

The trial will include direct examination and cross examination of witnesses and could take several days to complete if Rangel chooses to provide a lengthy defense. During the two-year ethics probe, the panel interviewed 40 witnesses and produced 28,000 pages of documents.

After closing arguments from both sides, the adjudicatory subcommittee will meet in private to discuss and rule on the charges separately. If the subcommittee approves any charges, the full ethics panel will convene a sanctions hearing to determine the recommended punishment. Serious sanctions — including formal reprimand, censure or expulsion — require a vote on the House floor. Censure and expulsion require a two-thirds vote, while a reprimand, which Rangel refused to agree to in July, would need just a simple majority.

Rangel's funds dwindled quickly as he was forced not only to pay legal bills but also to defend himself in a September primary, which he won handily.

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.

Rangel 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 could last hours and hours and extend over several days. Leaders are bracing themselves for the public spectacle just two weeks after devastating midterm election losses that handed control of the chamber to Republicans.

In addition to the $393,000 in PAC funds, Rangel spent $1.4 million from his campaign committee to pay Zuckerman Spaeder, as well as $100,000 in 2009 to pay Davis’s firm. Federal Election Commission records also show he spent $147,577 on D.C. attorney John Kern and another $174,303 went to Watkins, Meegan, Drury & Co., a firm that offers forensic accounting and legal services.

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 Democratic leaders rejected.

But any sort of pro bono work for a member of Congress would have 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.