Charles Rangel to Face Public Trial on House Ethics Violations

The 40-year House veteran has denied guilt and promises to clear name.

July 29, 2010, 10:16 AM

WASHINGTON, July 29, 2010— -- A House panel investigating alleged ethics violations by New York Rep. Charles Rangel today moved forward with its case, setting the stage for the first public trial of a House member since 2002.

But lawyers for the 40-year Democratic House veteran continued negotiating with members of the committee behind closed doors into the afternoon, trying to avert a trial that is expected for September.

Rangel, 80, who was formerly chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, stands accused of 13 counts of violating House rules. He has denied any wrongdoing.

"We are neither accusers nor defenders of our colleague, Mr. Rangel," Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who chairs the ethics panel, said at a hearing earlier today. "We are here impartially. ... Our task is to determine whether Mr. Rangel's conduct met that standard" of upholding the public trust.

The committee's ranking Republican Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas said Rangel will now have a chance to defend himself before his peers.

"Let me be clear that Mr. Rangel was given the opportunity to negotiate a settlement during the investigation phase," said ranking Republican Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas. "But this is the trial phase."

An adjudicatory committee of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats could hear Rangel's case beginning in September. If the charges are upheld, Rangel could face a humiliating report on his actions, a public reprimand or censure by the House, or expulsion, which is considered unlikely.

Rangel, whose 15th District includes Harlem, resigned his powerful committee chairmanship in March after the Ethics Committee found the congressman violated House rules on two corporate-funded trips to the Caribbean.

The committee's latest ethics report on Rangel details a "pattern of indifference or disregard for the laws, rules and regulations of the United States and the House of Representatives."

He stands accused of failing to reveal more than half a million dollars in assets on financial disclosure forms; improperly obtaining four rent-controlled apartments in New York City; and failing to disclose financial arrangements for a villa at the Punta Cana Yacht Club in the Dominican Republic.

The most serious allegations appeared to surround his fundraising activities for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York.

Rangel allegedly used his status on the Ways & Means Committee to aggressively raise money for the center from corporations and foundations that had business before the House and his committee, sometimes at the same time he was meeting with lobbyists from the very entities from which he was soliciting cash.

The committee said the donations personally benefited Rangel because the Rangel Center was to including "a well-furnished office for Congressman Rangel" as well as an archivist/librarian to organize his Congressional papers. Rangel himself described the Center as "an institution that would preserve the work of my public life."

Regarding Rangel's four luxury rent-controlled apartments, the committee said the lease on the one used for his campaign office said the apartment was "for living purposes only."

"The undisputed evidence in the record -- assembled by the Investigative Subcommittee over its nearly two-year investigation -- is that Congressman Rangel did not dispense any political favors, that he did not intentionally violate any law, rule or regulation, and that he did not misuse his public office for private gain," his office said in a statement responding to the charges.

Earlier Thursday, Rangel told reporters he was bracing for a "bad day," which he said he hasn't had in 60 years. "Today I have to reassess that statement," he said.

The House investigation, which has spanned two years, included three interviews with Rangel and the review of more than 28,000 pages of documents.

If the trial commences as planned, it will mark a watershed moment for a man once considered one of the most powerful on Capitol Hill. It will also be the first time a congressman has been put on public trial for ethics charges since former Rep. James Traficant in 2002.

Democrats Distance Themselves from Rangel

Democratic leaders have publicly kept their distance from Rangel since news of the Ethics Committee charges surfaced last week.

Several Democrats in key races have returned campaign contributions from Rangel, others have called for him to step down.

In New York, an 80th birthday party and fundraiser for Rangel, scheduled for Aug. 11th at the Plaza Hotel, has been cast into doubt. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Tuesday he was unsure if he would attend.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said he wants to move past Rangel's problems.

"I think everybody would like to have it go away in the sense that this is not a pleasant process," Hoyer said Wednesday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has promised Democrats would "drain the swamp" of corruption in the House, called the ethics investigation a "serious responsibility that we have."

"Individual discretions are not right," Pelosi said today. "They must be judged and there must be accountability and there must be transparency, not to condone that."

While Pelosi avoided commenting specifically on Rangel's case, she said the ethics panel process will run its course and that the political ramifications of the case in an election-year will be known in due time.

"The process will work. It's bipartisan," she said of the panel. "And the chips will have to fall where they may politically, but upholding the highest ethical standards is a top priority for us."

House Minority Leader John Boehner disagreed with Pelosi's characterization of the situation during a news conference minutes later.

"The fact is the swamp has not been drained," he said. "I think that the American people expect that their members of Congress should be held to a high ethical standard."

ABC News' Matthew Jaffe contributed to this report.