One awkward piece of unfinished business on Capitol Hill is the ethics case against veteran Democratic lawmaker Charles Rangel. On Monday, members of the House ethics committee are scheduled to start Rangel's trial, formally called an adjudicatory hearing. But there are problems. For starters, Rangel doesn't have a lawyer.
He is expected to present his own defense -- and it could be an amazing presentation. He is renowned on Capitol Hill for his political skills and his way with an audience. But he's represented his district in Harlem for half of his 80 years -- and it's been that long since he cracked a law book.
Rangel's attorney withdrew this fall. The legal fees had been paid out of campaign funds -- $2 million at last count. But in the shadow of scandal, the campaign treasury dried up.
In a speech on the House floor in August, Rangel said he could no longer afford a lawyer. He can't get a lawyer to represent him pro bono, either, because that would count as a gift of services -- a violation of House rules.
13 Charges In All
The case against Rangel is a hodgepodge of allegations:
--That he used his position as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee to solicit funds for a proposed Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York;
--That he lied about his finances in his personal disclosure filings and dodged taxes on rental income from a vacation home in the Dominican Republic;
--And finally, that he got special favors leasing rent-stabilized apartments in New York.
There are 13 charges in all, alleging that the chairman of the committee that writes the tax code -- one of the most senior members of the House -- abused his position, broke House ethics rules and violated the law.
While acknowledging he has made mistakes, Rangel said earlier this year that his actions weren't corrupt: "It may be stupid. It may be negligent. But it's not corrupt."
He says he got no personal benefit, and he's corrected the disclosures and settled up on the taxes. He also gave up his chairman's gavel.
A Dilemma For The Committee
To outsiders, the case looks like one that could be settled. If Rangel admits some wrongdoing, the committee could then recommend some kind of punishment for the House to act upon.
Rangel has said that he was ready to settle and that the committee's lawyers were ready to agree.
"I got papers where my lawyer tells me she had every reason to believe that the full committee would sign on there. There was space for people to sign. I'm the only one who signed. I don't know what changed their minds about settling this case," he said.
Not surprisingly, Republicans on the ethics committee tell things differently. Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican at Monday's hearing, said in July that Rangel missed his chance to strike a deal.
"Let me be clear that Mr. Rangel, under these rules, was given opportunities to negotiate a settlement during the investigation phase," McCaul said. "We are now in the trial phase. The American people deserve to hear the truth in this case and the charges against him."
But facts don't always control the agenda in Congress, or on the ethics committee.
Melanie Sloan, the director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, says committee members may be troubled by the appearance of the trial -- the committee and its lawyers questioning an 80-year-old African-American lawmaker, a Korean War veteran with a purple heart, without a lawyer.
"As much hay as could be made has been made," she says. "I think the House ethics committee does bear some risk if the proceeding against Mr. Rangel seems disrespectful."
But there's no telling what the committee will do -- hardly the first time that's been said about congressional ethics enforcement.