Shortly after veteran Rep. Charles Rangel of New York walked out of his ethics trial in protest, a House panel began closed-door deliberations Monday on 13 counts of alleged financial and fundraising misconduct that could bring formal condemnation.
Only recently one of the most powerful members of Congress, Rangel was reduced to pleading in vain for colleagues to give him time to raise money for a lawyer before taking up the charges. The 80-year-old congressman left when they said no, and the rare proceeding — only the second for this type of hearing in two decades — went on without him.
An ethics committee panel of four Democrats and four Republicans was sitting as a jury in the case late Monday. The official acting as prosecutor said the facts were so clear there was no need to call witnesses, and panel members apparently agreed.
If the panel members decide Rangel violated any House rules, the full committee will hold a hearing on how he should be punished. The most likely sanction would be a House vote deploring his conduct.
Rangel, a 20-term congressman representing New York’s famed Harlem neighborhood, implored the ethics panel for further delay, saying that “50 years of public service is on the line.” But the panel basically decided that the 2½-year-old case had gone on long enough — and Congress had little time left to deal with it in the lame duck session that commenced Monday.
Rangel said he had run out of money after paying his previous attorneys some $2 million and needed time to set up a legal defense fund to raise an additional $1 million.
Until last spring, Rangel had wielded great influence as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, a gravelly voiced, outgoing figure who raised millions for fellow lawmakers’ campaigns. He relinquished that chairmanship in March after being admonished by an ethics panel for taking corporate trips to the Caribbean in violation of House rules. There was no further punishment for that, but the current charges are another matter.
If the ethic panel finds that Rangel broke the rules, the House ethics committee could recommend that the full House vote to condemn his conduct.
“My family has caught hell” in the investigation, Rangel said in asking for more time. Earlier this fall, he had pleaded for a quick decision before the November elections. He won re-election.
“I truly believe I am not being treated fairly,” Rangel said.
The charges allege violations of:
* A House gift ban and restrictions on solicitations. Rangel is accused of using congressional staff, letterhead and workspace to seek donations for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. The requests usually went to charitable arms of businesses with issues before Congress, including Rangel’s Ways and Means Committee.
* A U.S. government code of ethics. Several allegations fall under this code, among them: accepting favors (the Rangel Center donations) that could be construed as influencing Rangel’s congressional duties; acceptance of a rent-subsidized New York apartment used as a campaign office, when the lease said it was for residential use only, and failure to report taxable income.
* The Ethics in Government Act and a companion House rule requiring “full and complete” public reports of a congressman’s income, assets and liabilities each year. Rangel is charged with a pattern of submitting incomplete and inaccurate disclosure statements. He filed amended reports covering 1998 to 2007 only after the investigative ethics panel began looking into his disclosures. He belatedly reported at least $600,000 in assets.