In August, Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel stood in the floor of the House of Representatives, rejecting calls from colleagues who wanted the veteran lawmaker to quietly conclude the ethics probe that has been hovering over him for nearly two years. He threw his arms out and said, “I am not going away.”
But as the probe into the veteran lawmaker formally began Monday, Rangel did just that.
After spending more than $1 million on legal bills, Rangel told members of a bi-partisan House Ethics committee he can no longer afford to retain his legal team. He also complained about Congressional rules barring lawmakers from accepting pro-bono services, under the federal law banning gifts to lawmakers.
Then, he excused himself and walked out. His call to delay the hearing until he can raise money for a legal defense were denied.
A source close to Rangel said lawyers asked him to guarantee payment of at least $600,000 before they would represent him at the hearing. After Rangel said he could not guarantee such a large payment, his lawyers informed the committee they were withdrawing from the case.
Democratic and Republican members blasted the law firm for “draining” Rangel’s resources then, on the “eve” of the proceedings, withdrawing. Members suggested creating rules to prohibit similar action in the future (One member noted a criminal court would never such a withdrawal so soon before a trial.)
In Rangel’s absence, the 8-member committee voted to accept as facts more than five hundred pieces of evidence, documenting violations against Rangel, ranging from failure to pay taxes on rental income her earned on a Dominican villa, the soliciation of money for a college from people with business before his committee, and the improper use of a rent-stabilized apartment as a campaign office.
The New York Times called the acceptance of the facts in the Rangel case “an ominous sign” for the lawmaker.
One bright spot for Rangel came when the committee’s chief counsel - who has been tasked with presenting the information to the committee – said in his opinion, Rangel did not personally benefit from the wrongdoing, and that in the aggregate, it did not reach the highest level of wrongdoing.
“I see no evidence of corruption,” said chief counsel R. Blake Chisam. “It’s hard to answer the question of personal financial benefit. I think the short answer is probably no.”
However, Chisam did say there are laws and regulations that Rangel clearly violated. For example, using one of his four rent-stabilized apartments as a campaign office was, he said, inappropriate.
“There is absolutely no circumstance that Mr. Rangel’s use of this particular apartment would not have violated some law in New York,” he said.
Chisam said Rangel did not violate the city’s rent-stabilization laws, but did run afoul of the building code, or, rules governing how the units the complex could be used. Chisam said certain exemptions could be made for using a portion of the apartment as an office, so long as the rest of the unit was indeed an apartment and no staffers traveled to the premises in order to work.
“It is absolutely clear based on everything we know that he used that unit solely and exclusively as a campaign office,” said Chisam. “He had his staff go in there. They worked in there. No one from his family slept in there. He did not use it and he was quite open and notorious about it."
The case against Rangel, as are many things in Washington, played out in a political atmosphere that could impact the outcome.
The hearing comes after Democrats lost control of the House in the midterms (although Rangel overwhelmingly won reelection for his own congressional seat). Political observers say Democrats may be eager to demonstrate they understand voter frustration with Washington by dishing out a particularly harsh punishment to one of their best known colleagues. Republicans, who take over Congress in January, may also want to show that they are wiling to do what Democrats had promised, but did not deliver: to "drain the swamp" of corruption in the nation's capital.
During Monday's hearing, at least, the Democratic members of the committee seemed better at advocating for Rangel than he was.
“This proceeding is a hearing, not a trial,” said the Committee’s chairwoman, Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California. She went on to say, “No conclusions as to the facts of this matter can be drawn by the fact that Mr. Rangel has decided not to participate in this hearing.”