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How Rangel's ethics hearing could play out

By Kristi Keck, CNN
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Rep. Rangel faces ethics panel
  • House ethics committee makes public a report of Charles Rangel's alleged violations
  • Rangel could face first House ethics trial since 2002
  • House ethics hearing is like a cross between a courtroom trial and congressional hearing
  • Outcome of the hearing could range from dropping all charges to reprimand to expulsion

(CNN) -- Longtime Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York will be the subject of the House ethics committee's first corruption trial in almost a decade unless his attorneys reach an agreement to settle his charges.

The House ethics committee on Thursday made public a report of Rangel's alleged violations. The committee accused Rangel of 13 violations of House rules involving alleged financial wrongdoing and harming the credibility of Congress. After a nearly two-year investigation of Rangel, the committee's report could bring a trial by a panel subcommittee in September.

Ethics panel charges Rangel with conduct discrediting the House

A formal hearing would be a trial-like session involving formal charges with lawyers for the House acting as prosecutors and Rangel's attorneys defending him, but some experts don't foresee Rangel making it to the trial stage.

"I think all sides are going to be motivated to reach some kind of resolution short of the public hearings," said Robert Walker, former chief counsel and staff director of both the Senate and House ethics committees.

Rangel has said he welcomes the trial. He has said that "sunshine will pierce the cloud of serious allegations."

The outcome of the hearing could range from dropping all charges to reprimand to expulsion from the House of Representatives.

Video: Rep. Rangel addresses charges
Video: Rangel: 'Look forward to responding'

As a result of his 2002 corruption trial, former Rep. James Traficant, an Ohio Democrat, became the second member of Congress to be kicked out since the Civil War.

Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said Traficant's case "hardly even counts as a serious precedent."

At the time of his ethics hearing, Traficant already had been convicted of taking bribes and other charges in a court of law. He spent seven years in prison and was released last year.

"A trial, particularly of a senior congressman, on charges that have been headline news, would be one of the most striking committee proceedings the House can have," said Tiefer, who was solicitor and deputy general counsel of the House for 11 years.

Rangel temporarily stepped down as Ways and Means Committee chairman following the announcement of an ethics investigation of several allegations, including failure to pay taxes on a home in the Dominican Republic.

The congressman has also admitted a failure to report several hundred thousand dollars in assets on federal disclosure forms. In addition, he is under scrutiny for the purported misuse of a rent-controlled apartment for political purposes, as well as for allegedly preserving tax benefits for an oil-drilling company in exchange for donations to a project he supported at the City College of New York.

The House ethics committee previously admonished Rangel for violating rules on receiving gifts. Specifically, the committee found that Rangel violated House gift rules by accepting reimbursement payments for travel to conferences in the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008.

Should Rangel face a trial, it would play out in what Walker described as a cross between a courtroom trial and a congressional hearing.

Both sides would deliver opening statements and present their cases. They could also call witnesses, who could be cross-examined by the other side.

In a public hearing, there is more leeway given to the committee in terms of admissibility of evidence, Walker said.

Following the evidentiary part of the process, there would be closing arguments, and the case would go back to the jury.

In a House ethics trial, the "jury" is made up of an eight-member adjudicatory subcommittee whose members are allowed to question witnesses.

The subcommittee that would consider Rangel's case comprises four Democrats and four Republicans, according to the ethics committee document.

It said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, is the panel's chair. Other Democratic members are Reps. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, Kathy Castor of Florida and Peter Welch of Vermont. The four Republicans are Reps. Michael McCaul of Texas, Mike Conaway of Texas, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and Gregg Harper of Mississippi.

The jury then would have to determine whether each charge was proven by the standard of "clear and convincing evidence."

"That is less than 'proof beyond a reasonable a doubt,' which would be the standard at a criminal trial, but it's more than the standard of just 'preponderance of the evidence, which would be the standard at a civil trial," Walker said.

Despite the outcome, the trial phase could be detrimental to Rangel, Tiefer said.

"It hurts his public image to parade a sequence of witnesses who testify that he is guilty of receiving favors and so forth, and it also arguably hurts the image of those connected with him in his party delegation," he said.

If he adequately disputes the facts, he could persuade the committee to moderate or even drop all of the charges, Tiefer added.

The whole matter could be dismissed with no further action if the subcommittee decides that no wrongdoing was proven, but if members decide punishment is warranted, they would then have to decide whether to sanction Rangel.

"If they determine that it was a technical violation, the committee could then issue what's called a letter of reproval, which is not an actual sanction," Walker said.

If the committee decides more serious punishment is in order, such as reprimand, censure or expulsion, the full House must vote on the issue.

A simple majority vote is required to reprimand or censure a member of Congress, while a two-thirds majority is required for an expulsion.

The House has expelled only five members of Congress. A number of members, however, have resigned before the House took formal action, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Rangel has served 20 consecutive terms in the House. He's facing a September 14 Democratic contest with Adam Clayton Powell IV, the son of the late scandal-plagued congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who was ousted by Rangel 40 years ago.

Rangel's other primary challengers include banker Vince Morgan, liberal activist Jonathan Tasini and Joyce Johnson, a field director for President Obama's 2008 campaign.

Rangel said last week that he hoped the matter could be concluded in time for the September contest.

CNN's Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.