Tuesday, November 16, 2010

It is open season on Black Congressmen.

The ethics Trial of Congressman Charles Rahgel began with an admonition from House ethics committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and went downhill from there.

Talk about setting a low bar.

Within minutes of its opening 15 November, the trial degenerated into exactly the level of dignity and decorum we have come to expect from our lawmakers.

Rangel immediately requested a postponement of the trial. Rangel until recently had sway over hundreds of billions of dollars as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Half an hour into the public hearing he had demanded for so long, Rangel announced that he was leaving.

"I object to the proceedings, and I, with all due respect, since I don't have counsel to advise me, I'm going to have to excuse myself from these proceedings," he told his eight colleagues, who wore expressions of surprise and amusement.

After Rangel departed, he treated reporters who chased him down the hall to more of his treatise on fairness and justice. The committee members huddled in private, then decided to proceed with the trial of Rangel in absentia, as if they were a Hague tribunal judging an at-large war criminal.

This was but the latest act in the ongoing farce known as congressional ethics. Rules are so flexible, and enforcement so lax, that even instances that look like outright influence-buying don't get prosecuted. And there's no sign that the situation will improve, as key figures make noises about abolishing the new Office of Congressional Ethics, a semi-independent body designed to make ethics investigations more transparent.

"I am being denied a right to have a lawyer," he informed the committee with righteous indignation.
"You may hire whoever you wish as a lawyer," the chairwoman told him. "That is up to you."

There is some truth to Rangel's complaint. His law firm, Zuckerman Spaeder, withdrew from the case after his trial date was set, and after Rangel had paid them at least $1.4 million.

Rangel, after a tough reelection campaign (and the loss of fundraising clout associated with his committee chairmanship), has little campaign money left to pay another lawyer, and House rules prevent him from accepting pro bono help. (Celebrated criminal lawyer Abbe Lowell, seated with Rangel's family in the hearing room Monday morning, was willing to take the case for a pittance.)

Rep. Rangel, once one of the most influential House members, was convicted on 16 November on 11 counts of breaking ethics rules and now faces punishment. The veteran New York lawmaker immediately denounced the verdict as unfair.

An ethics panel of eight House peers deliberated over two days before delivering a jarring blow to the 20-term New York Democrat's career. Rangel was charged with 13 counts of financial and fundraising misconduct.

The conviction also was another setback for Democrats who lost control of the House to the GOP in the midterm elections.

Rangel, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, is not expected to resign. He is 80 years old and remains a dominant political figure in New York's famed Harlem neighborhood.

He was forced to step down last March as Ways and Means chairman when the House ethics committee, in a separate case, admonished him for taking two Caribbean trips paid for by corporations.

At his one-day trial on Monday, Rangel was reduced to pleading for a postponement — arguing that his lawyers abandoned him after he paid them some $2 million but could afford no more. The panel rejected his request, and Rangel walked out of the proceeding.

Rangel reacted bitterly to the conviction.

"How can anyone have confidence in the decision of the ethics subcommittee when I was deprived of due process rights, right to counsel and was not even in the room?" Rangel said in a written statement. "I can only hope that the full committee will treat me more fairly, and take into account my entire 40 years of service to the Congress before making any decisions on sanctions."

He called the panel's findings "unprecedented" because there was no rebuttal evidence. He complained that the rejection of his appeal for more time violated "the basic constitutional right to counsel."

Rangel, echoing a statement he made in August in a speech to the House, added, "any failings in my conduct were the result of "good faith mistakes" and were caused by "sloppy and careless recordkeeping, but were not criminal or corrupt."

New York Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who attended Rangel's fundraiser in August while campaigning to clean up New York politics, said, "It's obviously a sad situation to experience.

"It's important that people have full faith in the integrity in public service, so it's painful to watch," Cuomo said Tuesday at a press event near Rochester. "But we'll see what happens at the end of the process."

Only last spring, Rangel wielded significant power in the House from his position as the main writer of tax legislation. He was not present Tuesday when the verdict was announced.

The full ethics committee will now conduct a hearing on the appropriate punishment for Rangel, the silver-haired, gravelly-voiced and sartorially flashy veteran of 20 terms in the House.

Possible sanctions include a House vote deploring Rangel's conduct, a fine and denial of privileges.

The congressional panel, sitting as a jury, found that Rangel had used House stationery and staff to solicit money for a New York college center named after him. It also concluded he solicited donors for the center with interests before the Ways and Means Committee, leaving the impression the money could influence official actions.

He also was found guilty of failing to disclose at least $600,000 in assets and income in a series of inaccurate reports to Congress; using a rent-subsidized New York apartment for a campaign office, when it was designated for residential use; and failure to report to the IRS rental income from a housing unit in a Dominican Republic resort.

The ethics panel split 4-4 on a charge that Rangel violated a ban on gifts because he was to have an office — and storage of his papers — at the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York.

Two counts charging him with misuse of Congress' free mail privilege were merged into one.

The charges said the solicitation for the Rangel Center targeted foundations and businesses that were seeking official action from the House, or had interests that might be substantially affected by Rangel's congressional conduct.

However, Rangel was not accused of using his influence to pass or defeat legislation.

During Monday's trial proceeding, the chief counsel for the House ethics committee, Blake Chisam, told the jury that Rangel could have received permission to solicit nonprofit foundations. However, he could not have used congressional stationery and staff as he was found to have done.

Rangel had previously acknowledged some of the charges, including submission of 10 years' worth of incomplete and inaccurate annual statements disclosing his assets and income.

He also admitted he initially did not report his rental income from a unit he owned at the Punta Cana resort in the Dominican Republic.

An apartment in Harlem's Lennox Terrace complex housed the Rangel for Congress and National Leadership PAC political committees, when the lease terms said the unit was designated for living purposes only.

Chisam had told the jury that other tenants were evicted at an increasing rate for violating the same lease terms.



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