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Rangel Paying Out Huge Legal Bills

Updated: 7:53 p.m.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), who is the subject of multiple investigations by the House ethics committee, has emptied his re-election coffers of nearly $723,000 to pay legal expenses in 2009, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Those payments bring the senior Democrat’s legal bills to more than $900,000 since he first mounted his defense to July 2008 news reports that he had inappropriately used his Congressional stationery to fundraise for a local college.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly referred to as the ethics panel, opened a subcommittee to investigate Rangel’s actions in September at Rangel’s request.

The investigation targets four allegations, including Rangel’s lease of three rent-controlled apartments in his district — the lawmaker earlier gave up a fourth unit he had utilized as an office in the same building — and his use of House parking facilities for long-term vehicle storage, which is prohibited.

In addition, the probe includes Rangel’s ownership of a villa in the Dominican Republic and his failure to report rental income on that property, which led to unpaid taxes. Rangel has defended his actions but has since paid those taxes.

The subcommittee is also probing Rangel’s fundraising efforts for a center at the City College of New York named in his honor. In December, the committee announced it would expand the investigation to include an alleged quid pro quo — legislative action in exchange for donations to the college. Rangel has denied any wrongdoing in the matter.

Last month, Rangel was also named in a separate ethics committee investigation into a privately sponsored trip to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008, along with four other members of the Congressional Black Caucus. That probe is examining whether those trips, sponsored by the Carib News Foundation, violate House gift rules.

A year ago, Rangel mounted a spirited defense — offering the press detailed documentation ranging from fundraising letters to copies of his leases — and asked the ethics committee to investigate the allegations, which he said would clear his name.

But the chairman has gone silent on the ethics issues in recent weeks, refusing repeated requests for comment.

“I don’t want to discuss the ethics committee at all,— Rangel said outside his Ways and Means Committee office in late June.

“The Congressman will have no comment on matters before the ethics committee,— Rangel spokesman Emile Milne wrote in an e-mail last week.

According to his most recent report filed Wednesday, Rangel spent $279,000 in legal fees in the second quarter of this year.

The most recent payments include a total of $93,000 to Watkins, Meegan, Drury & Co., an accounting firm that Rangel has hired to complete a “forensic audit— of 20 years of his financial statements, including his local, state and federal tax returns.

Rangel said in September that such a report would be turned over to the House ethics panel, which could then opt to make the report public.

In addition, the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder, which is representing Rangel before the ethics committee, received more than $135,000. The same firm received $340,000 from Rangel in the first quarter of the year.

Also among the second quarter legal expenditures, Washington, D.C.-based attorney John Kern received a payment of nearly $45,000. Oldaker, Belair & Wittie received numerous payments totaling $6,300.

During the 2008 cycle, Rangel’s various committees reported spending more than $224,000 on legal fees, nearly $187,000 of which was spent after July 2008.

While the Ways and Means chairman continues to rack up legal bills, it is unclear when the ethics committee will conclude its inquiries.

The House ethics panel does not comment on its investigations, and a Zuckerman Spaeder attorney did not return a telephone message Wednesday.

According to records maintained on the committee Web site, other probes of rules violations in the past decade have taken as little as two months and as long as two years to complete.

Both Rangel and his office have previously predicted a prompt conclusion of the investigation of the chairman’s finances, most recently in late May, when Rangel said he expected to be called as a witness in the inquiry.

According to current and former House aides familiar with the ethics committee’s process, such an interview is indicative of the end of an investigation.

But Rangel has little ability to push the committee to finish its investigation.

Ken Gross, an ethics attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, noted that while any Member under investigation can speed the process merely by being cooperative — giving the committee documents or otherwise complying with its requests — there are numerous other factors that could impede an inquiry.

“It may have different tentacles to it that are out of your control,— Gross said.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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