Charlie Rangel's Brief Defense

Charlie Rangel was on the stand this morning, briefly.

The House ethics committee is trying him on 13 charges, and the longtime Harlem congressman had no lawyers present to defend him. He was going it alone.

It made for quite a spectacle--one that didn't last too long, as Rangel walked out of the proceedings after about an hour, refusing to participate.

Before the trial began at 9 a.m., Rangel milled about the empty hearing room in the Longworth House office building, reviewing some notes in a small notebook and shuffling papers at a table opposite the three committee counsels who will prosecute him. A gaggle of cameramen clicked photos of him, but the 80-year-old Democrat didn't look up.

When Rangel launched into his opening statement, denouncing the committee for depriving him of the right to a legal defense team, of fair treatment in general--"that may be what I've been entitled to, but I certainly didn't get it"--his strained, gravelly voice echoed off the dark wood and hard surfaces of the committee room, giving a wall-of-sound presence to his railings. One half expected him to declare that "the whole trial is out of order!"

"I truly believe I'm not being treated fairly, and that history will dictate that, notwithstanding the political calendar, I am entitled to a lawyer during this proceeding," Rangel said, suggesting it's not fair that he participate in any trial in which "the political calendar would not to get a lawyer at this critical point in my life."

In September Rangel had asked for an expedited trial, a request made in a dramatic, ranting, half-hour speech on the House floor just before Congress adjourned for August recess. Today, Rangel asked the committee instead to postpone the trial, so that he could set up a legal defense fund and raise money for lawyer fees. After spending millions on his previous legal team, they stopped representing him in mid-October.

"When the charges of counsel came to over two million dollars, and I could not convince them that I would be able to pay--one of them suggested it would be a million dollars for the hearing--they withdrew," Rangel explained today.

"Each time that I asked for a hearing, do any of you believe I was asking for a hearing without counsel?" he asks.

Rangel has been an assistant U.S. attorney in his lifetime, before entering Congress and assuming chairmanship of the House Ways & Means Committee, one of the most powerful jobs in Congress, but defending himself is a new experience.

After Rangel finished talking, the members of the committee didn't quite know what to make of him. Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren had already interrupted him a couple times, courteously, with Rangel obliging in equal courtesy, to explain the committee's positions as Rangel railed against them.

Congressman G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, a former judge and the only white member of the Congressional Black Caucus, asked Lofgren whether Rangel's statements should be considered a motion to proceed. There seemed to be confusion on this point--how to classify, in legalese, the impassioned and grandiose indictments of an 80-year-old congressman. Lofrgen asked Rangel if, indeed, it was a motion to proceed.

"I don't know whether...first of all, my role here is as a respondent," Rangel replied, "And I am not here to represent myself. I've been a lawyer long enough to know that it is very unwise for any person, a lawyer or a judge, to be his own lawyer at a proceeding like this, so I'm not in position to make a motion."

Lofgren thanked him. With the committee's legal team set to introduce 549 pieces of evidence, the committee adjourned for a half-hour break to consider whether or not to continue with the hearing at present.

As they left the room, Rangel shook hands with lead prosecutor Blake Chisam and his two co-counsels and stepped aside to address reporters, reiterating some of his complaints.

When they came back, Rangel wasn't there. He was gone.

Rangel had refused to participate, refused to suffer the indignities of, for instance, trying to explain why he hadn't reported income payments from the Punta Cana Yacht Club, while a wire transfer receipt showed he'd received the money. He left Chisam to introduce his evidence and his fellow members of Congress to challenge the attorney on his accusations.

With 549 pieces of evidence up for dispute, there's no telling what this trial would have looked like had Rangel stayed.

The committee went ahead without him. The Charlie Rangel Show was over.