An eight-member House panel is deliberating the fate of Rep. Charles Rangel after he walked out of his ethics trial Monday when the panel refused his request to delay the proceeding. Rangel, who faces 13 counts of violating House rules, appeared in the morning without a legal team, saying he could not afford representation and asking to postpone the trial until he could.
Despite Rangel's absence, the committee's staff attorneys continued with their case against him, making an early motion for a summary judgment against the long-serving Democrat, meaning that no further witnesses or evidence would be heard before the committee votes on each count against Rangel. The committee granted that judgment and then went into closed executive session to debate each count against the congressman. If Rangel is found guilty, the committee will make a recommendation to the full House about punishment, which could range from reprimand to censure to expulsion.
Earlier in the day, the 21-term congressman from New York had explained to the committee members that he spent nearly $2 million in legal fees in the run-up to the trial, complaining that the committee denied him the right to open a legal defense fund to pay for additional lawyers, a statement the committee later refuted.
Rangel cannot accept free legal advice under the House gift ban, but has already used nearly $300,000 from his national leadership PAC to cover attorneys' fees, which is also a violation of House rules.
Rangel told the committee Monday that he has been advised that the trial will cost him an additional $1 million in legal fees and asked the members to give him time to find a way to hire and pay for a new legal team.
"Fifty years of public service is on the line," Rangel said in his opening statement. "I truly feel that I am being treated unfairly. . . . All I'm asking for is the time to get counsel."
When a House staff attorney made a motion for a summary judgment in the case, Rangel said he could not respond to the motion because he had no lawyer to advise him of how to proceed. "I respectfully remove myself from these hearings," Rangel told the members.
Faced with the possibility that Rangel could leave the hearing and not present his own defense, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) made a motion to delay the hearing until Rangel has had time to secure another legal team. After going into executive session to consider the motion, the committee decided to proceed with the trial, but not without reservations from both Democrats and Republicans.
"We are extremely troubled that Mr. Rangel's former counsel withdrew shortly after this hearing was noticed," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the committee. "We recognize that Mr. Rangel does not intend to participate in this trial and it is his right not to."
Several other members, including Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the top Republican on the adjudicatory subcommittee, also expressed their anger at Rangel's attorneys, who left the congressman's service after he said he could no longer pay their fees.
"That is fundamentally unfair," said Butterfield, a former Superior Court judge. "It would not have happened in my courtroom and it should not happen here."
Rangel, a 40-year House veteran, is facing charges stemming from a 21-month investigation into accusations that he failed to report to the Internal Revenue Service rental income on his villa in the Dominican Republic; that he used House letterhead and postage to solicit donations for a school named in his honor at City College in New York; and that he has for years been allowed to rent four rent-controlled apartments in Harlem, a violation of the House gift ban.
Rangel's trial comes more than two years after the congressman asked the committee to investigate him in the wake of several media reports raising questions about his tax filings and personal financial disclosure reports to the House.
Although the congressman has insisted he never knowingly violated House rules, he stepped down from his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee earlier this year under pressure from fellow Democrats. Since then, he has defiantly kept a high profile on Capitol Hill and in his Harlem district, maintaining his innocence at every opportunity.
The top Republican on the ethics committee, Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), said in July that Rangel had been offered several chances to avoid a congressional trial in exchange for admitting wrongdoing, which Rangel refused.
In an extraordinary speech on the House floor in August, Rangel held forth for more than half an hour to defend himself before going home to New York to campaign for the primary election for his 21st term in office. He said then that there was "not one scintilla of evidence" to prove him guilty of the violations and demanded that the ethics committee publicly try him so he could answer the allegations. Portions of that speech were spliced and broadcast for committee members to view during Monday's trial.