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House to launch ethics investigation of Rep. Laura Richardson

The inquiry will focus on allegations that the Democrat from Long Beach put pressure on her congressional staff to work on her campaign.

November 03, 2011|By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times
  • The House Ethics Committee is launching an investigation into whether Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach) pressured her congressional staff to work on her campaign.
The House Ethics Committee is launching an investigation into whether… (Lawrence Jackson, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — The House Ethics Committee voted Thursday to launch an investigation into whether Rep. Laura Richardson pressured her congressional staff to work on her campaign, adding to her political troubles as she faces a tough reelection campaign next year.

The investigation is expected to be announced Friday. The panel, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, largely operates in secret. Members voted unanimously to form a four-member investigative subcommittee — with power to subpoena witnesses and documents — to examine whether the Long Beach Democrat violated House standards of conduct. The investigation is likely to take months.

A source familiar with the preliminary inquiry discussed it on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. At least eight current and former Richardson staff members told investigators they felt compelled to work on her 2010 reelection campaign on their own time, the source said. Some said House resources, such as congressional phones and copying machines, were used in the campaign, the source said.

In a statement late Thursday, Richardson confirmed the panel's action and accused it of "unjustly" targeting some members while overlooking the well-publicized misuse of official House resources for personal purposes by numerous other members of Congress." She cited House members who sleep in their offices, "saving tens of thousands of dollars personally at taxpayers' expense."

Richardson, who is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, suggested she was a target because of her race and sex. She vowed "to explore the issue of whether the ethics committee has engaged in discriminatory conduct in pursuing two investigations against me while simultaneously failing to apply the same standards to or take the same actions against other members — of whom the overwhelming majority are white males."

In the statement, she reminded constituents that "less than one year ago, I was completely exonerated after a similar investigation."

That investigation concerned Richardson's dealings with a bank that canceled the sale of a foreclosed home she owned in Sacramento. The controversy cast a spotlight on the financial affairs of the congresswoman, 49, who defaulted on three homes.

The investigation couldn't come at a worse time for Richardson. She is a victim of alleged embezzlement by her campaign treasurer and is expected to face two fellow Democrats, Rep. Janice Hahn and state Assemblyman Isadore Hall, in the June primary. After redistricting, the district stretches northeast from the L.A. Harbor area to South Gate.

Punishment for ethics violations can include reprimand, censure and expulsion from the House.

Congressional staff can work on campaigns on their own time "as volunteers or for pay, as long as they do not do so in congressional offices or facilities, or otherwise use official resources,'' according to the ethics committee. But "in no event may a member or office compel a House employee to do campaign work.''

Politico reported earlier this year that a former Richardson district scheduler said in her resignation letter that "on more than one occasion I was asked to do a task or coordinate an event that was on the ethical borderline and not in my job description.''

Compelling a congressional staff member to work on a campaign also may violate a federal law that "covers intimidation to secure not only monetary contributions for a political purpose, but anything of value,'' including services, according to advice to lawmakers on the committee website.

Richardson reportedly has sought to remind the committee that when it investigated Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) in 2006 on a similar issue, it closed the matter after he agreed to clarify work rules with his staff. Conyers' congressional staff members also were prohibited from working on his campaign unless they took unpaid leave from their government jobs and received ethics committee approval.

But the source with knowledge of the allegations against Richardson said their scope was bigger than those against Conyers.

Richardson, a former Long Beach councilwoman and state assemblywoman who was first elected to the House in 2007, is the second Los Angeles lawmaker to come under ethics committee scrutiny.

The panel's case against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) remains unresolved 2 1/2 years after the investigation began. Waters is accused of intervening on behalf of a bank where her husband owned stock and served on the board. She denies wrongdoing, and an outside counsel has been hired to investigate the committee's conduct in the probe.

richard.simon@latimes.com

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