Rep. Charles Rangel Walks Out of Ethics Hearing; Says He Needs More Time to Find Lawyer

November 15, 2010 - 11:28 AM

Washington (AP) - Rep. Charles Rangel of New York implored a House panel Monday to postpone his ethics trial until he can get a new lawyer, arguing that "50 years of public service is on the line."

The former Ways and Means Committee chairman made an impassioned opening statement that said he had run out of money to pay his previous attorney after spending nearly $2 million. The silver-haired, 80-year-old congressman then left the proceedings and the eight panel members -- four Democrats and four Republicans -- went into a closed session to consider his request for a delay.

Rangel, a 20-term Democrat from New York's famed Harlem neighborhood, said he would not attend any further hearings without legal representation.

Rangel has been accused in 13 House counts of financial and fundraising misconduct that violated the chamber's rules.

The panel was sitting as a jury in a House committee room for a proceeding that was open to the public. It was only the second time this type of hearing was held under a revamped system of in-house ethics policing adopted by lawmakers two decades ago.

If the panel finds that Rangel broke the rules, the House ethics committee could recommend that the House vote to condemn Rangel's conduct.

"My family has caught hell" in the investigation that has lasted 2 1/2 years, Rangel said.

The congressman said his lawyers had indicated to him that it could cost another $1 million to defend him at the ethics proceeding. He said it's unfair to continue the trial without allowing him to obtain an attorney.

The ethics committee chairman, Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., had told Rangel that the panel might not have time to judge his conduct before this Congress adjourns. A postelection lame duck session commenced on Monday.

Rangel said that his fate should not depend on the congressional calendar, but on fairness.

"I am being denied the right to have a lawyer right now, because I don't have the opportunity to have a legal defense fund set up," he said.

"I truly believe I am not being treated fairly," Rangel said.

The ethics investigation goes back to at least July 2008. Only former Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, who was expelled from the House after a criminal conviction, has faced a similar trial since current House ethics procedures were adopted two decades ago.

Key charges portray Rangel as a veteran congressman who thought he could ignore rules on disclosing his assets, and improperly used official resources to raise money for a college center that was a monument to his career.

But an allegation that caught the public's eye was his failure to declare rental income to the IRS from a resort unit he owned in the Dominican Republic.

The case has generated its share of political game-playing. Republicans on the House ethics committee demanded that the proceeding be held before the election, when the trial of the House's fourth-most-senior member could have embarrassed Democrats. Lofgren rejected the request.

Rangel has acknowledged ethical lapses, but he has argued that he did not intend to break the rules.

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 only filed amended reports covering 1998 to 2007 after the investigative ethics panel began looking into his disclosures. He belatedly reported at least $600,000 in assets.