When he entered the hearing room for the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct on November 15, New York Rep. Charlie Rangel was by himself, without a legal team, an entourage, or supporters. And that's how the famed 20-term Democrat left, about a half-hour later, after making a dramatic speech in which he said he could not participate in an unfair trial that could taint his "50 years of public service." [See a slide show of 10 reasons Charlie Rangel is in trouble.]
Despite his protests, the investigative subcommittee continued without him, and in a little over a day the eight-member group of fellow representatives found him guilty of 11 ethics violations, including filing erroneous financial disclosure forms, improperly using a rent-controlled apartment as his campaign office, and failing to pay taxes on rental income from a beach villa in the Dominican Republic. In addition, the subcommittee found that, while raising money for an educational center to be named in his honor, Rangel violated ethics rules by using House stationery to solicit major foundations, including the charity arms of large companies such as AT&T, JPMorgan Chase, and Verizon, even as some of those companies were dealing with Rangel, then head of the Ways and Means Committee, on congressional matters. Blake Chisam, the ethics committee's chief counsel, said he felt that Rangel was "overzealous" but probably not corrupt, yet deserved punishment for breaking House rules.
Rangel, 80, was alone because he had parted ways with his lawyers, who he said had charged him $2 million for working on the case over the last two years. Although he had previously urged the committee to hurry up with its investigation, at Monday's hearing he said that unless the panel gave him more time to set up a legal defense fund and find another attorney, he would be unable to defend himself against the charges. [See who donated to Rangel's campaign.]
After the verdict came in, Rangel appeared before the full ethics committee. Passionately defending his record, he said that had he been able to mount a defense, it would have become clear that his actions were sloppy and improper, but that he did not try to profit from his public office. "Overzealous is not an excuse, but I appreciate that Mr. Chisam demonstrated that it is an explanation," Rangel said, at times tearing up during his statement. "I hope you take that into consideration."
On November 18, the committee recommended censure, a surprisingly harsh measure that requires Rangel to listen to the House speaker read a rebuke of him as he stands in the well of the House chamber. The committee also recommended that Rangel be forced to pay outstanding taxes on the villa. The recommendation will go to the full House for a vote, and if it is approved, Rangel will be the first House member to be censured since 1983.
The scandal didn't prevent Rangel from easily winning re-election on November 2. But as Republicans intensify their calls for him to resign and Democrats keep him at arm's length, it could be a lonely few years for Rangel.