Rangel ethics trial finished in one day — jury of peers mulls verdict on charges

A House ethics panel is poised to issue a verdict on Rep. Charles Rangel after more than two years of investigating the New York Democrat.

Rangel could learn of his fate as early as Tuesday after a surprising end to the public phase of his trial.

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The ethics panel spent most of Monday in closed-door deliberations, which capped a dramatic day that began with Rangel leaving the proceedings and ended with the panel debating the 13 charges against him.

In what may be a worrisome sign for Rangel, the ethics subcommittee agreed that the facts, as presented by the prosecution, were not in dispute and that Rangel had not refuted the charges.

The ethics adjudicatory panel, composed of four Democrats and four Republicans from the full ethics committee, adjourned Monday evening without offering a timetable for a verdict. As in a jury trial, those deliberations could take hours or days.

The events capped a rollercoaster of a day in a trial that was expected to stay in the public phase for most of the week.

In a dramatic twist to a contentious morning session, Rangel left the proceedings within 30 minutes of their start. He said he could no longer participate in the long-anticipated trial after the subcommittee denied his emotional plea for postponement because he lacked legal representation.

Rangel angrily accused the panel of denying him his due process rights by first delaying the trial and driving up his legal costs then moving forward with it after he and his attorneys had parted ways.

“Under what theory of fairness would dictate that I would be denied due process and an attorney,” he demanded.

After meeting for 40 minutes in a closed-door session to consider Rangel’s request for postponement, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the committee, announced the trial would continue.

“We recognize that Mr. Rangel does not intend to participate. It is his right not to participate,” she said to Rangel’s empty chair.

She also noted that Rangel had asked for official advice about ways to cover his mounting legal bills in September 2008, in March 2009, in October 2010 and again in November 2010 and received informal advice in August 2010.

“Each time, the committee responded and provided Mr. Rangel with formal guidance on how he could pay his legal fees in this matter,” she said, including out of his own pocket.

Rangel earlier this year complained that the ethics process was taking too long.

Without Rangel’s presence, ethics committee chief counsel Blake Chisam spent 80 minutes reviewing the allegations against the lawmaker and moved for a summary judgment to dispense with what was expected to be a lengthy trial.

 By calling for a summary judgment, the ethics committee successfully moved the trial behind closed doors and avoided a protracted public spectacle, which Democratic leaders had long wanted to avoid.

“The record before you is the record,” Chisam said. “The facts are the facts and the counts are ripe for a vote.”

When Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), asked Chisam whether he saw any evidence of corruption or self-dealing, Chisam paused before answering.

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“I see no evidence of corruption,” he said. “It’s hard to answer the question of personal financial benefit ... I think the short answer is no.”

“I believe the congressman quite frankly was overzealous in many of the things he did and at least sloppy in his personal finances.”

The presence of famed defense attorney Abbe Lowell at Rangel’s side added to the circus-like atmosphere of the day. Watchdogs immediately questioned whether Lowell, who has represented political figures in hot water such as Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.), was helping Rangel prepare for the day even as the New York lawmaker claimed that he couldn’t get legal representation.

Rangel said that he couldn’t afford an attorney and didn’t have time to open a legal defense fund and House gift rules bar attorneys from working for members on a pro bono basis. When asked about Lowell’s role at the hearing, Rangel spokesman Emile Milne said he was there as a “long-time friend and supporter” who may have decided to represent Rangel if he was given enough time to set up a legal defense fund and had enough time to adequately prepare.

“I am a friend and was there to support him,” Lowell said of his presence. “I asked reporters not to step on and push his wife because they were and she is a slight person. I was one of the attorneys he asked to represent him in the future if the Committee gave him a chance — they didn’t.”

Rangel released a statement Monday afternoon saying he was disappointed that the hearing continued after he left the proceedings.

“I am very disappointed that the Ethics Subcommittee has chosen to proceed with the hearing knowing that I am without counsel,” he said.

“I hope that my colleagues in Congress, friends, constituents and anyone paying attention will consider my statement and how the committee has been unfair to me. They can do what they will with me because they have the power and I have no real chance of fighting back.”

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.

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.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), a CBC member who served on the investigatory subcommittee that charged Rangel earlier this year, said Monday that the 20-term lawmaker did not act in a corrupt or self-serving manner and should be served only with a letter of reproval from the House.