Rangel Loss Would Not Stop Trial

Posted September 13, 2010 at 7:10pm

In the unlikely event that Rep. Charlie Rangel loses the primary today in New York’s 15th district, the Democrat’s House ethics trial could still proceed, Congressional observers said, though it would likely be a more low-key affair.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct could announce a trial date as early as this week, when the House returns from its August recess.

Rangel faces state Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, the son of ex-Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D), whom Rangel defeated in 1970 to win election to the House; banker Vincent Morgan; labor activist Jonathan Tasini; former Seagram’s executive and educator Joyce Johnson, who won the endorsement of the New York Times; and Ruben Vargas, who has no campaign committee.

Should any of those challengers knock Rangel out of the general election, it could influence the course of the ethics trial — although several observers agreed it is unlikely to halt the proceedings.

“Typically the committee sort of loses its zeal when someone loses an election or announces they’re going to retire,” said a former House aide knowledgeable of the ethics process.

But the former aide added: “Both Rangel and the committee have a vested interest in finishing the case.”

An ethics subcommittee spent more than two years investigating multiple allegations against Rangel.

Stefan Passantino, a former GOP House aide who is now head of the political law team at McKenna Long & Aldridge, said he thinks the ethics panel would opt to end its trial if voters terminate Rangel’s tenure in the House.

“As a practical matter … once a Member loses a primary and is effectively a lame duck, the greatest likelihood would be that the committee would not put all of the Members through the time and expense of a trial,” Passantino said.

He pointed to the ethics panel’s investigation of then-Rep. Jay Kim (R-Calif.), who pleaded guilty in 1997 to receiving illegal campaign contributions and lost his 1998 primary. The committee continued its investigation of Kim until October 1998, and although it found that he violated House rules, the panel did not recommend any punishment.

Passantino acknowledged, however, that the Rangel inquiry is much further along — the committee finished its investigation earlier this year and submitted a “statement of alleged violation” in July — and he suggested the New York lawmaker himself could want to see the process completed.

“Everything that I have seen would indicate that Charlie Rangel would want to go forward under no uncertain terms,” Passantino said. Still, Democratic lawmakers may also wish to avoid a public ethics trial in advance of the November elections.

The Congressional calendar could also influence the ethics trial’s pace and determine whether the panel assigned to judge Rangel is able to complete its work before the end of the 111th Congress.

“The endgame in this whole thing is still uncertain,” the former House aide said, citing uncertainties in whether the committee would still meet during the October recess or be finished with its work by year’s end.

If nothing else, a loss in the Democratic primary could significantly affect the New York lawmaker’s ability to continue to pay his legal bills. Rangel has paid more than $2.1 million in legal fees from his campaign account and his leadership political action committee since the ethics panel began its investigation in 2008.

Under campaign finance laws, any contributions that Rangel received for the general election would have to be refunded if he is not a candidate in the general election. A contributor could opt to reallocate the funds for use in the primary, however, so long as the donor had not already contributed the maximum $2,400 limit for that contest.

Rangel acknowledged in an August speech on the House floor that he is already having difficulty keeping up payments on his legal bills.

“I can understand how, financially, this thing can go on longer than I can afford, but [my attorney] is willing to assist me in working out something in pro bono,” Rangel said at that time.

An ethics subcommittee in July charged Rangel 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, accepted a rent-stabilized apartment for his campaign office, failed to pay taxes on a Dominican Republic villa and filed inaccurate financial disclosure forms. Rangel has since paid the overdue taxes.

Rangel acknowledged in a speech on the House floor in August that he may have violated some House rules, but he denied that his actions were corrupt.

Neither Rangel nor his attorney returned requests Monday for comment related to his pending ethics trial.

Under the panel’s rules, Rangel and his attorneys must be provided at least 15 days to review any evidence, as well as potential witnesses and a summary of their expected testimony, before a hearing may occur.