After more than two years of investigation — and one wild day before a special ethics panel — the political legacy of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) rests in the hands of eight colleagues who will decide his fate in a secret deliberation.
Facing a rare trial to review alleged ethics violations, Rangel walked out in protest after complaining that the bipartisan “adjudicatory subcommittee,” a special panel under the House ethics committee, wouldn’t grant him more time to hire a new attorney. It was a theatrical twist for a Harlem legend who has vowed to fight the charges to the end.
Now, as part of the secretive ethics process, a bipartisan, eight-member panel will approve or reject all or part of the allegations against Rangel.
If Rangel is found guilty on any of the counts, the full ethics committee will have to decide what punishment to impose. The sanctions can run from a letter of reproval all the way up to expulsion from the House.
The ethics panel adjourned Monday evening without making any decisions, but legal experts believe Rangel will be found guilty of some or all of the charges.
Rangel, if found guilty, will most likely face a reprimand or censure, both of which require a floor vote in the House. The 80-year-old Rangel will able to address either the ethics committee or the House itself before that happens.
Such internal deliberations by ethics committee members are intense and secretive. No staff is allowed in the room, and anyone found leaking what occurs behind closed doors could face criminal sanctions. When they are ready to announce their decision, the eight members, led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), will publicly declare their findings.
Members who have participated in such sessions describe them as “heavy duty” and “very stressful.”
“No member would ever enter into something like this lightly,” said a former member of the ethics committee, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s tough.”
The veteran lawmaker has been hit with a 13-count “Statement of Alleged Violation” after a two-year investigation, including allegations that he improperly solicited millions of dollars from corporate officials and lobbyists for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at The City College of New York, failed to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars of income and assets on financial disclosure forms, illegally maintained multiple rent-stabilized apartments in a luxury Harlem apartment building and failed to pay income taxes on a villa in the Dominican Republic.
Rangel split with Zuckerman Spaeder last month after paying the firm $1.6 million during the two-year investigation into his personal finances. Rangel said the firm wanted an additional $1 million for the trial, funds that he no longer had available after running through his campaign account. Members of Congress are allowed to use campaign funds to cover legal fees incurred as part of their official duties.
“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,” Rangel complained to the adjudicatory subcommittee hearing his case. “And because I don’t have a million dollars to pay my counsel.”
Zuckerman Spaeder released a statement Monday afternoon, insisting that it did not end the relationship with Rangel.
“It has been a privilege for Zuckerman Spaeder to represent Congressman Rangel, who has had a long and distinguished career in public service,” the firm said. “This law firm did not seek to terminate the relationship and explored every alternative to remain as his counsel, consistent with House ethics rules prohibiting members from accepting pro bono legal services. Out of respect for Congressman Rangel and the House Ethics Committee, we will not comment further at this time.”
Once a top fundraising draw, Rangel stepped down as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee earlier in the year, damaging his ability to raise money. The long-running ethics scandal has also damaged his reputation with potential donors.
Rangel said he was told only two weeks ago by the ethics committee that he could set up a legal defense fund to cover his attorney fees, and Rangel asserted that he hadn’t had time to do so yet.
Rangel was visibly emotional in his opening speech, arguing that his due process rights, his lengthy congressional career and even his combat service during the Korean War justified a delay in the proceedings.
“All I am asking for is fairness,” Rangel told a horde of reporters who trailed him down the hallway after his combative appearance.
Abbe Lowell, a top ethics and white-collar-criminal attorney who represented former President Bill Clinton during his 1998 impeachment, was at Monday’s session, although he never got a chance to appear on Rangel’s behalf.
Rangel also complained bitterly that the ethics committee was trying to end his trial and punish him before the end of the 111th Congress.
“Can you tell me under what theory of fairness would dictate that I be denied due process, that I be denied an attorney, because it’s going to be the end of the session?” Rangel lamented at one point.
“My reputation, 50 years of public service, has to suffer because you have concluded that this matter has to end before this Congress ends.”
But Lofgren and the other members of the special panel, including Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the ranking member, refused to back off.
After a 40-minute debate behind closed doors, Lofgren and the panel came back into public session and announced they had denied Rangel’s request. Blake Chisam, staff director for the ethics committee, laid out the particulars of the case. The most serious allegations against Rangel surround his fundraising on behalf of the Rangel Center for Public Service. Rangel sought as much as $30 million in public and private funds for the center, and he was charged with sending out more than 120 letters on official letterhead to potential donors, while also using his staff to track who had given to the project.
Chisam later admitted that there was no issue of corruption by Rangel or any apparent attempt to benefit himself or his family personally through his actions.
“I see no evidence of corruption,” said Chisam. Chisam’s statement was in response to questioning by Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a member of the panel hearing the Rangel case.
“It’s hard to answer the question of personal financial benefit,” Chisam added. “I think the short answer is probably no. Do I believe that, based on the record, … Congressman Rangel took steps to benefit himself based on his position in Congress? No. I believe that the congressman, quite frankly, was overzealous in many of the things he did — and sloppy in his personal finances.”
With Rangel gone, Chisam then offered a motion for summary judgment, meaning that none of the evidence he and his team had presented was being challenged by Rangel, who wasn’t there to challenge the evidence anyway.
Lofgren and the other seven members adjourned for two more hours and then came out and said they had accepted the motion.
It was a fitting end for a crazy day, and the only question now is whether Rangel will be found guilty or innocent.