Rangel’s Ethics Trial Is First Since Traficant’s

Posted November 12, 2010 at 6:04pm

The House ethics committee is set today to hold its first ethics trial in more than eight years, as Rep. Charlie Rangel faces charges that he violated House rules.

The New York Democrat, who is expected to represent himself at the hearing, will appear before an eight-member adjudicatory subcommittee, headed by ethics Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas).

An ethics investigative subcommittee charged the senior lawmaker in July with 13 counts of wrongdoing, including allegations that he misused federal resources to solicit donations for a City College of New York center named in his honor, used a rent-stabilized apartment for his campaign office, failed to pay taxes on a Dominican Republic villa and filed inaccurate financial disclosure forms.

Although Rangel offered an impassioned self-defense on the House floor in August, the New Yorker has deflected questions on his looming trial in recent weeks and has made no public comment on his reported split with Zuckerman Spaeder, the law firm that has represented him throughout the ethics panel’s investigation.

Rangel has denied he intentionally violated House rules, although in August he acknowledged he may have broken the chamber’s franking rules: “But it’s not corrupt. It may be stupid. It may be negligent. But it’s not corrupt.” He has also repaid the overdue taxes.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct declined to comment, but the adjudicatory hearing’s agenda will largely be dictated by the panel’s internal rules.

When the session opens at 9 a.m. — it will take place in the House Administration Committee’s hearing room in the Longworth Building — Lofgren will make an opening statement, citing the subcommittee’s authority and reiterating the purpose of the hearing. McCaul will also be allowed to make a statement at that time.

The hearing will then shift into a trial format, as ethics committee counsel and Rangel or his representative will be allowed to make opening arguments to the panel.

Blake Chisam , the ethics committee’s staff director and chief counsel, along with committee counsels Donald Sherman and Deborah Morris, will present the charges leveled by the investigative subcommittee that spent two years investigating Rangel.

Both sides will then move to call witnesses and present evidence in the case, which is expected to last several days.

The ethics subcommittee has not indicated how much time each side will be allowed, although it is expected to follow a format similar to the panel’s last adjudicatory hearing in 2002, when then-Rep. Jim Traficant (D-Ohio) and the ethics panel’s attorneys were each allotted five hours to make their presentations, including one hour each for opening and closing statements.

Under the ethics committee’s rules, members of the adjudicatory panel — four Democrats and four Republicans — may also question witnesses after they have been questioned by both the ethics counsel and the Member or his counsel. The panel’s members may also ask questions directly to the committee’s staff or to Rangel.

Following those presentations, the adjudicatory panel must determine Rangel’s guilt or innocence on each count. The panel then reports its determination to the full ethics committee.

If the panel finds Rangel responsible for any of the alleged violations, the full ethics committee must convene a hearing to determine whether to sanction Rangel.

While the committee may opt to issue a “letter of reproval,” the panel would need to seek the approval of the House if it recommends a harsher punishment, including a reprimand, censure or expulsion from the chamber.

The Monday hearing could nonetheless be derailed if Rangel were to strike an agreement with the adjudicatory panel over the weekend. That possibility appeared unlikely at press time, however, since it would require agreement with the subcommittee’s Republican Members, several of whom indicated at a July organizational meeting that the time for negotiations had concluded with the adjudicatory panel’s creation.