RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One awkward piece of unfinished business on Capitol Hill is the ethics case against a veteran Democratic congressman. Today, eight members of the House Ethics Committee are scheduled to start what's called an adjudicatory hearing -in plain English: the trial of New York's Charles Rangel. But there are problems. For starters, Rangel doesn't have a lawyer to defend him.
NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: The expectation is that Congressman Rangel's defense will be presented by Rangel himself. It could be an amazing presentation. Rangel is renowned on Capitol Hill for his political skills and his way with an audience. But he's represented his district in Harlem for half of his 80 years, and it's been that long since he cracked a law book.
Rangel's attorney withdrew this fall. The legal fees had been paid out of campaign funds - $2 million at last count. But in the shadow of scandal, the campaign treasury dried up.
Representative CHARLES RANGEL (Democrat, New York): I'm here because I could afford lawyers for close to two years, but everyone would know that it comes a limit.
OVERBY: That was Rangel last August, addressing the House. He can't get a lawyer to represent him pro bono, either. That would be a gift of services. It would violate the rules of the House.
The case against Rangel is a hodgepodge of allegations: That he used his position as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee to solicit funds for a proposed Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York, that he lied about his finances in his personal disclosure filings and dodged taxes on rental income from a vacation home in the Dominican Republic, and finally, that he got special favors leasing rent-stabilized apartments in New York - 13 charges in all, charges alleging that the chairman of the committee that writes the tax code - one of the most senior members of the House - abused his position, broke House ethics rules and violated the law. Rangel's refrain...
Rep. RANGEL: It's not corrupt. It may be stupid. It may be negligent, but it's not corrupt.
OVERBY: He says he got no personal benefit, and he's corrected the disclosures and settled up on the taxes. Rangel also gave up his chairman's gavel.
To outsiders, this case looks like one that could be settled: have Rangel admit some wrongdoing, have the committee recommend some kind of punishment for the House to act on. Rangel has said that he was ready to settle and the committee's lawyers were ready to agree.
Rep. RANGEL: I got papers where my lawyer tells me she had every reason to believe that the full committee would sign on there. There was space for people to sign. I'm the only one that signed. I don't know what changed their minds about settling this case.
OVERBY: Not surprisingly, Republicans on the Ethics Committee tell things differently. Texas Congressman Michael McCaul is the ranking Republican at today's hearing. Here he is last July, saying that Rangel missed his chance to strike a deal.
Representative MICHAEL MCCAUL (Republican, Texas): Let me be clear that Mr. Rangel, under these rules, was given opportunities to negotiate a settlement during the investigation phase. We are now in the trial phase, and the American people deserve to hear the truth in this case and the charges against him.
OVERBY: But facts don't always control the agenda in Congress, or on the Ethics Committee.
At the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Director Melanie Sloan says committee members may be troubled by the optics of the thing: the committee and its lawyers questioning an 80-year-old African-American lawmaker, a Korean War veteran with a purple heart, there by himself without a lawyer.
Ms. MELANIE SLOAN (Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington): As much hay as could be made has been made. I think the House Ethics Committee does bear some risk if the proceeding against Mr. Rangel seems disrespectful.
OVERBY: But there's no telling what the committee will do - hardly the first time that's been said about congressional ethics enforcement.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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