If this was Charles Rangel's last stand, it wasn't pretty and it apparently didn't get him much sympathy.
Rangel, who has represented New York's Harlem for his 40 years in Congress, made a truncated and somewhat baffling appearance Monday before a panel of the ethics committee, which has been deliberating over charges that he violated House rules 13 times. The 80-year old Democrat said it was an outrage he was being judged even though he was without legal counsel and couldn't afford a new lawyer. But committee chair Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), her patience seemingly wearing thin, reminded Rangel several times that the case has been going on for two years, that Rangel had plenty of time to prepare his defense, and that while the law firm that had been representing him ended their relationship last month because he could no longer afford to pay them, the committee had long advised Rangel that he could set up a legal defense fund to pay for his lawyers but has never taken advantage of it.
Having said what he wanted to say, Rangel then walked out of the hearing.
But the committee continued its deliberations, and by day's end it said there was evidence to support the charges leveled against Rangel. What's left, it seems, is for the committee to recommend how to punish him. (See yesterday's post, "A Look At Possible Verdicts.") A verdict could come fairly soon.
If the ethics committee members held their tongue in judging Rangel's performance, some newspaper editorials were less reticent. The New York Times was harsh:
Mr. Rangel chose to grandstand. In remarks drenched in self-pity, he cited his 50 years of public service, his military record, his love of country. In a bid to discredit the proceedings, and likely verdict, he actually suggested that the committee was trying to deny him a lawyer, as if its members had anything to do with his predicament. ...
Mr. Rangel is not facing expulsion or criminal charges. About the worst that can happen to him is a reprimand. The lawyer acting as the committee's "prosecutor" said Monday that Mr. Rangel had been sloppy in his finances and in following reporting rules, not corrupt.
We think that the 13 ethics charges against the congressman — including the acceptance of four rent-stabilized apartments and the failure to pay taxes on a chunk of his income — are more serious than simple sloppiness. But if he had apologized to the House and accepted his knuckle-rap, he would have been spared the hearing. Now he has raised even more questions about his fitness to represent his district.
The Daily News said Rangel's "attempt to play the victim of a congressional investigation that has deprived him of constitutional rights just won't wash":
Rather than take responsibility for paying attorneys - as nonpoliticians must when called before Congress - Rangel asked for time to fatten his coffers again. In effect, he asked an ethics subcommittee to play according to his calendar and the well-being of his bank accounts.
No one gets that privilege.
In keeping with his steadfast insistence that Rangel's Rules are different from everyone else's, he charged: "The committee has deprived me of the fundamental right to counsel and has chosen to proceed as if it is fair and impartial and operating according to rules, when in reality they are depriving me of my rights."
Wrong. No one took away Rangel's rights. He surrendered them by walking out when the panel, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, proceeded without him.
The New York Post editorial was especially scathing:
Shed no tears for Charlie: He's a sad old man, but he brought it on himself. ...
It was Rangel's own behavior — over the course of years — that triggered the trial in the first place. ...
All that's certain is that a 40-year congressional career is ending in well-earned obloquy.
Given that the GOP takes over the House in January, it's unlikely that Charlie Rangel will ever again be in a position to abuse the public trust.
The Post's Charles Hurt wrote that "in this town of showmen, liars and big-time con artists, there has never been a more splendid vaudeville show":
It was a comedy of errors yesterday filled with surprise and farce and tragedy featuring a stunning dramatic performance by Charlie Rangel that would strain the acting abilities of the most accomplished Shakespearean player.
For his part, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank had contempt for both sides:
This was but the latest act in the ongoing farce known as congressional ethics. Rules are so flexible, and enforcement so lax, that even instances that look like outright influence-buying don't get prosecuted. And there's no sign that the situation will improve, as key figures make noises about abolishing the new Office of Congressional Ethics, a semi-independent body designed to make ethics investigations more transparent.
Now comes Rangel, who seems determined to take down with him any remaining credibility of the ethics committee...
It's difficult to feel sorry for Rangel. He could pay for lawyers by selling off his villa in the Dominican Republic. ... Or he could have maintained better relations with his legal team, rather than publicly rejecting their advice in a speech on the House floor.