Rep. Charles Rangel of New York implored a House panel Monday to postpone his ethics trial until he can get a new lawyer, arguing that "50 years of public service is on the line."
The former Ways and Means Committee chairman made an impassioned opening statement that said he had run out of money to pay his previous attorney after spending nearly $2 million. The silver-haired, 80-year-old congressman then left the proceedings and the eight panel members -- four Democrats and four Republicans -- went into a closed session to consider his request for a delay.
Rangel, a 20-term Democrat from New York's famed Harlem neighborhood, said he would not attend any further hearings without legal representation.
Rangel has been accused in 13 House counts of financial and fundraising misconduct that violated the chamber's rules.
The panel was sitting as a jury in a House committee room for a proceeding that was open to the public. It was only the second time this type of hearing was held under a revamped system of in-house ethics policing adopted by lawmakers two decades ago.
If the panel finds that Rangel broke the rules, the House ethics committee could recommend that the House vote to condemn Rangel's conduct.
"My family has caught hell" in the investigation that has lasted 2 1/2 years, Rangel said.
The congressman said his lawyers had indicated to him that it could cost another $1 million to defend him at the ethics proceeding. He said it's unfair to continue the trial without allowing him to obtain an attorney.
The ethics committee chairman, Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., had told Rangel that the panel might not have time to judge his conduct before this Congress adjourns. A postelection lame duck session commenced on Monday.
Rangel said that his fate should not depend on the congressional calendar, but on fairness.
"I am being denied the right to have a lawyer right now, because I don't have the opportunity to have a legal defense fund set up," he said.
"I truly believe I am not being treated fairly," Rangel said.