At Rangel’s Trial, A Theatrical Twist

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After trudging back to Washington to kick off the lame-duck session, the last thing House Democrats wanted was an embarrassing sideshow spotlighting the chamber’s alleged ethical shortcomings. But Rep. Charles Rangel was in no mood Monday to go quietly. The Harlem Democrat added a theatrical twist to the first day of his ethics trial, stalking out of the proceedings within the first hour after being denied a postponement. The show went on without him.

Rangel requested the delay to afford himself time to raise money for a new defense team. After forking over nearly $2 million to the law firm of Zuckerman Spaeder, the former Ways and Means Chairman split with his attorneys, claiming he couldn’t foot the coming bill—expected to be an additional $1 million—to see through his defense. “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, 80, told the subcommittee this morning. “My reputation of 50 years of public service has to suffer because this committee has concluded that it has to conclude this matter before the session ends.” After considering Rangel’s request, the committee announced it would forge ahead without him. “We recognize that Mr. Rangel does not intend to participate,” said Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat chairing the subcommittee. “It is his right not to participate.”

Rangel was right that the eight-member panel of his peers, known as an adjudicatory subcommittee and composed of four Democrats and four Republicans, wants the matter wrapped up before control of the House changes hands in January. The committee lawyer serving as the session’s prosecutor, Blake Chisam, quickly cycled through the 13 counts against the Harlem Democrat, producing emails and financial documents said to support the charges. Chisam also played video snippets of a long, impassioned speech Rangel gave on the House floor in August, in which the lawmaker copped to breaking some rules accidentally. (“It may be stupid. It may be negligent. But it’s not corrupt,” Rangel explained during the August soliloquy.) Chisam urged a quick resolution. “There are no genuine issues as to material facts in this case,” he said. “As a result, the case is ripe for decision.”

(Read a recent TIME profile of Rangel.)

After meeting in private for several hours, the committee agreed the facts of the case were not in dispute. The decision ended the “trial” portion of the matter, and the panel retired again to deliberate on the charges. If the subcommittee finds fault on any of the 13 counts, the case will be sent to the full committee to mete out punishment. The allegations include misusing rent-controlled apartments, using Congressional materials and letterhead to solicit donations to a New York college’s educational center bearing his name and improperly filing taxes and financial statements. (A pdf of the charges can be found here.)

The rare trial—it’s the first of its kind since 2002 and the second in two decades–has been in the works since 2008, when an investigation was opened into Rangel’s alleged misdeeds. Charges were filed in July against the Harlem Democrat, who relinquished his Ways and Means gavel in March after being admonished for a corporate-sponsored Caribbean sojourn that violated House rules. The cloud of controversy didn’t deter voters in the Manhattan district he’s represented for two decades; earlier this month he cruised to a 21st term.

“The process that the Committee has decided to take against me violates the most basic rights of due process that is guaranteed to every person under the Constitution,” Rangel said in a statement released by his office. “The Committee has deprived me of the fundamental right to counsel and has chosen to proceed as if it is fair and impartial and operating according to rules, when in reality they are depriving me of my rights.” During the short time the hearing was in session, Lofgren noted that the committee had on multiple occasions explained to Rangel the rules governing fund-raising for his defense. Unlike in criminal trials, the government is not required to provide free counsel, and accepting comped legal work could violate rules prohibiting lawmakers from receiving gifts.

When asked by a Democratic member of the subcommittee, Chisam, the prosecutor, said he agreed with Rangel’s contention that the lawmaker had not intentionally exploited his position for financial gain. “I see no evidence of corruption,” Chisam said, contending instead that he had been “sloppy in his personal finances.” Still, Chisam argued, the congressman had broken the rules.

The hearing was a headache Democrats had sought to avoid, and even if the spectacle reaches a quick conclusion the respite is only temporary. At the end of the month, the adjudicatory subcommittee will reconvene to consider charges against another member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California.