WASHINGTON — The House is close to deciding whether one of its most senior veterans, Charles Rangel of New York, should have to stand in front of his colleagues and be censured for ethical misconduct.
Rangel, D-N.Y., will argue for a lesser reprimand, and some of the congressmen he served with over the past 40 years will support him — among them, Democratic whip James Clyburn of South Carolina.
However, the 80-year-old Rangel must overcome a 9-1 vote of the House ethics committee. That panel recommended censure for financial and fundraising violations — the most serious discipline short of expulsion.
Either a censure or a reprimand requires a vote disapproving Rangel’s conduct, including his failure to pay taxes and his filing of misleading financial disclosure reports. However, only a censure requires him to appear at the front of the chamber — called the “well” — and have the censure resolution read by the speaker.
On Tuesday, newly released documents showed Rangel’s lawyers were bogged down with procedural issues in his ethics case — possibly explaining how he ended up unable to pay them and was forced to represent himself.
The documents were presented to the House Tuesday by its ethics committee, the final step before a vote on a resolution to censure Rangel for financial and fundraising misconduct. The vote is likely this week.
Shortly before Rangel’s Nov. 15 ethics trial, his defense team from the Zuckerman Spaeder law firm withdrew after the congressman said he could no longer pay them.
Rangel, who changed firms during the case, has said he spent about $2 million in legal fees from his campaign funds. Federal election records show about $1.4 million went to the Zuckerman firm.
The documents show that the defense team sparred with the ethics committee and, at one point, misunderstood the rules for responding to charges of ethics violations.
Ultimately, Rangel broke through the procedural morass and spoke on the floor of the House to answer 13 counts of ethics violations — 11 of which eventually were adopted by the ethics committee.
He said he erred in his failure to pay taxes on rental income from his villa in the Dominican Republic and in his incomplete financial disclosure reports, but never intended to break House rules.
He walked out of his ethics trial Nov. 15, saying his lawyers abandoned him and he could not defend himself without more time to hire a new defense team. The trial went on without him.
One example of the attorneys getting bogged down: a demand by the Zuckerman team last August that a Republican member of the ethics committee, Republican Michael McCaul of Texas, withdraw from the investigation.
With almost no chance of success, attorney Deborah Jeffrey wrote McCaul that he was biased because of his past criticism of Rangel’s efforts to raise money — including public funds — for a college center named after himself.
One of Rangel’s violations was his use of official stationery and congressional staff to solicit contributions for the Rangel Center at City College of New York. The ethics committee found that donors were businesses and foundations with business before the Ways and Means Committee.
“How would a reasonable person in Congressman Rangel’s position (or that of his constituents) view your fairness or objectivity in this most important matter?” Jeffrey wrote McCaul.
McCaul responded, “I have no concern that any of my actions at any time have compromised my ability to be a fair and objective participant in these proceedings.”
Jeffrey didn’t give up. She fired back with a second letter to express her disappointment that McCaul wouldn’t bow out.
In another example, Rangel attorney Leslie Kiernan attempted to disqualify ethics committee lawyers who advised the panel that investigated Rangel — and a separate panel that judged him.
Kiernan submitted a proposed order for ethics committee Chairman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., to sign, disqualifying the committee’s attorneys.
The defense team then withdrew the motion a day later.
Last July, Lofgren wrote Rangel that his counsel submitted a response to the ethics charges that was not signed under oath.
Kiernan, the defense lawyer, tried to submit a corrected statement, which also failed to contain a proper oath, Lofgren said.
Kiernan responded, “We do not understand the basis for the committee’s conclusion.”