Government reform advocates complained that a House ethics subcommittee’s decision Monday to cut short its trial of Rep. Charlie Rangel — eliminating witnesses and arguments, and moving straight to deliberations — will conceal the panel’s decision-making process from public view.
Although the New York Democrat’s ethics trial had been expected to last several days, with a public airing of the evidence against him, the ethics subcommittee opted to abbreviate the proceedings by ruling that none of the facts in the case was in dispute. Rangel has been under investigation for two years for a range of ethics investigations involving his personal finances and his fundraising for an educational center bearing his name.
Monday’s ruling allowed the subcommittee to move to an executive session to decide behind closed doors whether Rangel is guilty of the alleged violations.
“They’re having a public trial, except they’re not,” said Campaign Legal Center Policy Director Meredith McGehee. “It’s so typical of the ethics committee. They can’t even have a public trial publicly.”
McGehee said the decision allows the adjudicatory subcommittee to operate behind a “black curtain” because Members will not ask public questions of witnesses or committee attorneys, limiting insight into the committee’s deliberations.
“This case has raised any number of questions, including the procedures of the committee” Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said. But Wertheimer noted that Rangel is likewise culpable in the panel’s decision to avert a full trial.
Rangel announced Monday in a brief appearance before the panel that he would boycott the proceedings, stating that he does not have an attorney.
Rangel had asked for the hearing to be postponed while he sought new legal counsel, but the subcommittee declined a motion to do so Monday. The senior Democrat, who has spent more than $2 million on legal fees since 2008 and claimed in August he could no longer afford representation, split with his defense attorney in October.
“Fifty years of public service is on the line,” Rangel told the panel. “I truly believe I am not being treated fairly.”
Public Citizen’s Lisa Gilbert suggested that given Rangel’s decision not to participate even without an attorney, the ethics subcommittee may have been left without a “clear-cut solution.”
“I don’t know that choosing to proceed today is a referendum on the ethics process,” Gilbert said.
Despite its decision to move to deliberations, the subcommittee released more than 3,800 pages of exhibits gathered during its investigation Monday.
An ethics investigative subcommittee charged Rangel in July with 13 counts of wrongdoing, including allegations that he misused federal resources to solicit donations for a City College of New York center named in his honor, used a rent-stabilized apartment for his campaign office, failed to pay taxes on a Dominican Republic villa and filed inaccurate personal financial disclosure forms.
The adjudicatory subcommittee, composed of four Democrats and four Republicans, must now determine whether Rangel is guilty of violating House rules.
Rangel has denied any intentional wrongdoing, although in an August speech on the House floor, he acknowledged he may have broken the chamber’s franking rules: “But it’s not corrupt. It may be stupid. It may be negligent. But it’s not corrupt.” He has also repaid the overdue taxes on the Dominican property.
In remarks to the adjudicatory panel Monday, Blake Chisam, the ethics committee’s staff director and chief counsel serving as the trial’s prosecutor, repeatedly showed video clips of Rangel’s August floor speech to emphasize the lawmaker’s guilt.
But in responding to questions from the adjudicatory subcommittee, Chisam also said, “I see no evidence of corruption.”
“I believe the Congressman, quite frankly, was overzealous in many of the things that he did and sloppy in his personal finances,” Chisam added.
Should the adjudicatory panel determine Rangel is at fault in any of the charges against him, the subcommittee will forward its findings to the full Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The ethics committee will then hold a hearing to decide whether to sanction Rangel.
The ethics panel may opt to issue a “letter of reproval” on its own, but if the panel recommends a more severe punishment — including reprimand, censure or expulsion from the chamber — it would need to seek the approval of the House
The ethics committee admonished Rangel earlier this year for taking part in two Caribbean trips that violated House rules because the events received corporate funding.
The senior Democrat subsequently forfeited his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee.