Rep. Charles Rangel Ethics Trial Underway, Defiant Democrat Absent

New York Democrat says he can't afford a lawyer, needs time for defense fund.

November 15, 2010, 9:27 AM

WASHINGTON, Nov. 15, 2010 — -- Members of a congressional committee are behind closed doors tonight debating whether veteran U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel is guilty of violating House ethics rules.

The deliberations follow a dramatic opening session in which the New York Democrat demanded a delay in the proceedings, claiming the committee was not allowing him enough time to hire an attorney.

"I truly believe I have not been treated fairly," Rangel told the committee, before storming out as the first session adjourned.

Rangel had explained that his lawyers quit in October because he was unable to afford their nearly $2 million bill. He said he needed more time to explore the creation of a legal defense fund to help hire a new legal team.

"Two million already, and this proceeding could cost me another million," Rangel said.

The committee broke briefly to consider Rangel's request for more time. But House Ethics Committee chairwoman Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said that Rangel has had enough time to explore means to pay for counsel and consider the evidence and charges against him.

"Mr. Rangel has repeatedly sought and received legal guidance as to how he can pay [for counsel]," said Lofgren. "Mr. Rangel was provided with all the material and evidence on June 17 of this year. .. "

Rangel, 80, was not present in the hearing room when the committee reconvened.

A former chairman of the powerful Ways & Means Committee, Rangel faces 13 counts of violating House rules, including improperly fundraising for a community center in his name and failing to disclose more than a half million dollars in assets on financial disclosure forms.

Other charges allege he improperly obtained four rent-controlled apartments in New York City; failed to disclose financial arrangements for a villa at the Punta Cana Yacht Club in the Dominican Republic; and, improperly stored a vehicle in the House parking lot.

Committee Begins Examination of Evidence

Once the committee decided not to grant Rangel more time, the members proceeded to the examination of evidence from chief counsel R. Blake Chisam, who presented the case against the congressman.

Chisam said he had uncovered no evidence of corruption on behalf of Rangel but that the once powerful congressman had violated house rules.

"I think the congressman was overzealous and at least sloppy in his personal finances," said Chisam. "I see no evidence of corruption."

As to whether Rangel personally benefitted from his actions, Chisam said that was "hard to answer ... I think the short answer is no."

Because Rangel did not testify to refute the facts of the charges against him, the committee then voted to approve them. Members will now decide, behind closed doors, whether any of the facts violated the law, voting on each one separately.

ABC News' Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.

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