WASHINGTON-House Democrats limped back to Washington after midterm losses to commence an ethics trial for one of their own, Rep. Charles Rangel, 80, who faces 13 charges. Another ethics trial begins next week for Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who faces three charges.
Rangel, who was just reelected in a landslide in his New York district and until recently served as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, has been charged with a number of issues, from using congressional letterhead for fundraising for his foundation to using rent-controlled apartments for campaign offices to leaving more than $600,000 in income and holdings unreported on his tax documents.
After a characteristically blazing opening statement, Rangel left the hearing because he did not want to represent himself without a lawyer.
"I am being denied the right to have a lawyer right now because I . . . can't afford another million dollars," Rangel said, standing alone and speaking extemporaneously to his fellow members, away from the microphones. "Fifty years of public service is on the line. I truly believe that I'm not being treated fairly."
Rangel's lawyers withdrew from the case soon after the announcement of the ethics hearings, evidently because Rangel ran out of money to pay them after he racked up about $2 million in legal fees over the last two years. He requested that the committee delay the proceedings so he would have time to set up a legal defense fund.
"There's a lot of pain that I feel because I've fought in the wars, I've prosecuted with the U.S. attorneys, I've served as a legislator in the state," Rangel said before leaving the trial. "I love this Congress; I love this country. I think I'm entitled to more than is being suggested."
In responding to his complaints, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., chair of the Ethics Committee, said, "You may hire whoever you wish as a lawyer. That is up to you. It is your decision, not the committee's decision."
Then Rangel threw the curveball. "I'm going to have to excuse myself from the proceedings. I have no idea what this man," he said, referring to Blake Chisam, the Ethics Committee lawyer who brought the charges, "has put together over two years."
Lofgren pointed out that Rangel had not been left in the dark, and that the committee had repeatedly advised him on options for legal representation and paying for it. "These matters have been underway for quite some time," she said. But the committee withdrew for a private 30-minute session to consider whether to proceed since Rangel didn't have an attorney present, then returned to continue the hearing without the congressman.
"It is his right not to participate in this matter," Lofgren said.
Chisam, the committee's lead lawyer who used to be an advisor to Lofgren, said he didn't see evidence of "corruption" on Rangel's part but did believe that Rangel had "violated the rules."
"You can right now get to a vote based on what you have," Chisam said, adding that the evidence was "ample" to allow the committee to press all 13 charges. The committee members will consider whether the submitted evidence is enough to address the charges already or whether they will need to call witnesses and continue the proceedings for several more days. If the members do find Rangel guilty of charges, they'll then decide whether to impose sanctions on him.
House ethics hearings are rare-the last one was for Democratic Rep. James Traficant, who was expelled from Congress in 2002.