There have been moments when Rep. Charlie Rangel, the veteran (literally and metaphorically) Democratic lawmaker accused of breaking ethics rules, has been a legitimate candidate for some sympathy. He’s been in public service for nearly a half century, re-elected this month to a 21st term in Congress. The misconduct of which he has been accused is arguably not evidence of corruption, but bad judgment and rule-breaking better adjudicated by the IRS, instead of the House Ethics Committee. Even the Ethics Committee lawyer, Blake Chisam, told panel members that while Rangel was “sloppy” and “overzealous” in his behavior, “I see no evidence of corruption.” And while the accusations against Rangel cannot be disregarded, the 80-year-old is difficult to dislike personally; he has developed genuine friendships with colleagues on the other side of the aisle, and has earned the respect of colleagues in both parties as well.
Then, Rangel went one step too far in playing the victim, telling the committee Tuesday that he couldn’t proceed with his case because he couldn’t pay for legal representation, explaining:
I am being denied to the right to have a lawyer right now because I don’t have the opportunity to have a legal defense fund set up. And because I don’t have a million dollars to pay my counsel.
Rangel walked out of the ethics trial in protest when the panel refused to give him more time to raise money for his defense.
Rangel has already spent nearly $2 million of his campaign funds to pay for his top-drawer defense. And it’s a little unseemly for his expensive legal team to announce to him that they won’t keep working for him at this critical moment unless he’s able to cough up another million dollars. But crying poverty--especially by a lawmaker paid $174,000 a year with taxpayer funds--is not the best message to deliver right after the American public delivered a clear populist message in this month’s elections. It’s also not the most political thing to say when the country in crawling out of a crippling recession and many Americans are trying to summon the cash to pay the electric bill, not a fee to a big-shot lawyer. And most Americans--including defendants in Rangel’s Harlem district--couldn’t even dream of hiring as prominent a lawyer as Abbe Lowell, who had been representing Rangel. And while Rangel is correct in saying that he’s unable to accept free representation because of House rules restricting the acceptance of gifts, less-famous defendants don’t have the network to raise cash through a legal defense fund or campaign chest.
The Tea Party movement complained bitterly during the campaign that representatives in Washington had lost touch with American voters. Rangel’s behavior gives them that much more ammunition.