Rep. Charlie Rangel (D–N.Y.) asked the House Ethics Committee to postpone his ethics trial because he does not have legal representation. In a dramatic speech in the congressional hearing room, Rangel gave three different reasons for not having a lawyer for his long-anticipated trial on 13 charges of ethics violations.
One of Rangel’s excuses for not having a lawyer is that accepting free legal representation would violate the House gift ban. Meanwhile, famed defense lawyer Abbe Lowell accompanied Rangel to the hearing and departed with him.
“Trial lawyers want to give me counsel without a fee,” said Rangel to reporters outside the hearing room, after excusing himself from the proceedings.
Would the House Ethics committee allow that? “No, they said no, it would be considered a gift. They said that any free legal advice given to me by legal counsel given to me would be considered a violation of the gift ban,” said Rangel as Lowell stood next to him.
“Are you representing Mr. Rangel?” I asked Lowell, as he held open an elevator door for Rangel.
“I’m not his lawyer,” Lowell told me exclusively.
“Then what are you doing here?” I asked the man who famously defended President Bill Clinton during impeachment, Jack Abramoff, and Gary Condit.
“I’m watching. Same as you,” replied Lowell.
Lowell acted more like a lawyer than a reporter, as he sat in a reserved seat in the front row of the hearing room, told reporters to move out of the way as Rangel walked down the hallway, and accompanying Rangel into the elevator and walking back to his congressional office with him.
“Mr. Rangel, do you have any lawyers here with you today?” I asked him as he got on the elevator, but he did not respond to the question.
Rangel testified at the trial that he had “lawyers who have volunteered to help me,” but he could not accept free legal counsel because it would “violate the [House Ethics] gift ban.”
At 9 a.m. Monday morning, Rangel stood alone at the defense table in the House Ethics Committee hearing room wearing a bright blue and red striped tie and dashing red silk handkerchief tucked into his suit pocket with his reading glasses.
As the eight committee members—four Republicans and four Democrats—entered ten minutes later, Rangel sat quietly. The committee Chair Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D–Calif.) asked Rangel if he was representing himself in the proceedings. Rangel launched into a rambling, dramatic speech about his legal problems. The congressman gesticulated wildly as he adlibbed his remarks.
Rangel said that he needed a postponement in order to set up a legal defense fund. He said that he had requested and gotten approval for a legal defense fund, but the trial schedule did not give him the time he needed to set up the fund. He said that he had been “deprived counsel” and that the trial schedule would deny him “due process.”
Lofgren said that Rangel has “inquired of the committee whether a fund could be created for contributions for legal representation and has been advised by the committee that is permissible.”
“However, the retention of counsel is up to the respondent,” Lofgren told Rangel. ”Whether you require it as your own expense, with your campaign committee or through a fund, it’s your decision, not the committee’s decision.”
Rangel responded that he has “lawyers from Washington, D.C. and New York who are willing to give me free counsel … because they don’t think I’ve been treated fairly. And yet, they say that if they do, that it’s a gift that violates all the laws.”
“So yes, while you tell me I can hire anybody, get anybody, to have a lawyer,” Rangel said to Lofgren. “You also say… that time does not permit this matter to be concluded before the end of this session. And that’s the nuts and bolts of what we’re talking about. You’re telling me all the things I could do, but you’re not giving me the time to do them.”
Also, Rangel said that he did not have any more money to pay for legal counsel. He said that he had spent $2 million on his legal defense over the past two years out of his congressional campaign funds and his leadership PAC—which is a violation of House Ethics rules.
“I’ve been advised that this hearing will cost another million,” said Rangel. He said that he needed a legal defense fund to pay for the additional legal bills.
Rangel’s and his legal team at Zuckerman Spaeder inexplicably parted ways in late October. He has paid Zuckerman Spader a total of $1,701,289 in 2009 and 2010. He paid the law firm $1,408,289 with his congressional campaign funds and an additional $293,000 this year out of his National Leadership PAC.
The 80-year old congressman is on trial for not paying taxes on his rental property in the Dominican Republic, making a rent-controlled apartment into a campaign office, using his congressional office to solicit funds for the Rangel Center, and submitting inaccurate financial disclosure forms.
“Are you going back to doing your official duties and meetings?” I asked Rangel in the elevator as he was leaving.
“No question about it!” said a suddenly smiling Rangel.
The House Ethics trial against Rangel continues today, in his absence.