U.S. Rep. Laura Richardson's rundown Sacramento house, which became the scourge of the neighborhood and a sore point with an investor who thought he had bought it out of foreclosure, has drawn the interest of a House ethics panel.
The Office of Congressional Ethics contacted real estate investor James York, who bought Richardson's house at a foreclosure auction last year, only to have Washington Mutual take it back after he had recorded the deed and return the house to the congresswoman.
The office also has interviewed at least two of the Long Beach Democrat's Sacramento neighbors, asking about their efforts -- and their expenses -- to tidy up the front- and backyards of Richardson's two-story house. The city declared the house a public nuisance on one occasion and "blighted" on another.
Leo Wise, staff director and chief counsel of the ethics office, said its policy was to neither confirm nor deny investigations. He said House members are notified when their activities are reviewed.
Richardson's office declined comment. "We can't comment on conversations involving others that we haven't been a part of," her press secretary, Michael Eagle, said in an e-mail.
The independent Office of Congressional Ethics was created last year to answer critics who said the House was reluctant to investigate its own members. Its board consists of eight members, half appointed by the House speaker and half by the minority leader. They cannot be federal employees or lobbyists.
Among the members is former congresswoman and L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke. She declined to comment about Richardson.
If the panel determines there should be further investigation, it can turn its findings over to the House Ethics Committee.
Richardson bought the house in the tree-lined upper-middle-class Curtis Park neighborhood for $535,000 in early 2007 after she was elected to the Assembly. She already owned two houses, one in her Long Beach district and the other in San Pedro. She has defaulted six times on both homes.
After serving briefly in the Assembly, Richardson was elected to Congress in a special election later and moved out of the Sacramento neighborhood nearly two years ago.
The Sacramento house went into foreclosure in early 2008. Richardson also owed about $9,000 in property taxes at the time.
York bought the house in May 2008 for $388,000 and recorded the deed. He sent in a crew and began remodeling, to the joy of neighbors.
It wasn't long before Washington Mutual took it back and returned it to Richardson. York sued, and the case was settled with each side agreeing to keep details secret. JP Morgan Chase, which bought Washington Mutual last year, said it would be a violation of customer privacy to discuss the case. The company would not say whether the ethics office had contacted the firm.
York said he received the letter from the ethics panel about May 1 and faxed it to his attorney.
Earlier in the month, a representative of the ethics office called Janet Carlson and Peter Thomsen, who live across the street from Richardson's house. Both said the investigator asked questions based on a Los Angeles Times article about Richardson's house. They said he seemed interested in how much money they had spent to clean up her property and whether that might constitute gifts that could violate House rules.
Carlson said she had spent about $160 sending her gardener to mow Richardson's overgrown lawn several times and to have neighborhood children rake the leaves.
Thomsen said his wife would walk across the street with the garden hose and water the dying ivy hanging on a chain-link fence.
Thomsen, a retired banking executive, said he was asked briefly about the foreclosure and the house's return to Richardson.
When Richardson was elected to Congress, the house deteriorated further: The paint peeled, much of the grass and many plants died from lack of water, and weeds grew 3 to 4 feet high in back. Rats began breeding in the backyard and spread to the house next door.
Neighbors finally complained in e-mails and letters to Richardson, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic officials, but to no avail.