WASHINGTON — The scheduled Nov. 15 start of Rep. Charles Rangel's ethics trial is in jeopardy, because the former Ways and Means Committee chairman no longer has a defense team.
The New York Democrat and lawyers for the Washington firm of Zuckerman Spaeder have parted company, according to people inside and outside Congress familiar with the breakup. They spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because they were not authorized to discuss the development publicly.
The law firm declined to comment.
The chairman of the House ethics committee, Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, has not said whether the trial date she set is still valid. The committee has charged Rangel with 13 counts of ethical wrongdoing, primarily involving his fundraising and finances.
Rangel has paid the law firm more than $1.4 million from his campaign account, according to Federal Election Commission records.
If Lofgren and other committee members insist on going forward Nov. 15, it would be difficult for Rangel to find an attorney who could catch up with an investigation that began in the summer of 2008. Rangel could decide to represent himself.
The development also could affect the way ethics committee lawyers, acting as prosecutors, present their case to an ethics committee panel that will act as judges.
Committee attorneys have been lining up witnesses, expecting to face experienced defense lawyers who are familiar with every aspect of the case. The committee lawyers might present a more simplified case with fewer witnesses if Rangel represents himself.
If Rangel is found to have violated House rules, punishment could range from a report criticizing his conduct to a House vote to expel him – the latter highly unlikely. Other possibilities are House votes deploring his behavior.
The charges against Rangel accuse him of:
_Using House stationery and staff to solicit money for a New York college center named after him.
_Soliciting donors with interests before the Ways and Means Committee, leaving the impression the money could influence official actions.
_Failing to disclose at least $600,000 in assets and income in a series of inaccurate financial disclosure reports to Congress.
_Using a rent-subsidized New York apartment for a campaign office, when it was designated for residential use.
_Failure to report to the IRS rental income from his unit in a Dominican Republic resort.
In attempts to negotiate a plea bargain with ethics committee attorneys, Rangel admitted to some ethical lapses. Republicans on the ethics committee rejected any deal, saying it was offered too late.