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House Ethics Committee urges reprimand for Rep. Laura Richardson

August 01, 2012|By Richard Simon
  • The House Ethics Committe recommended Wednesday that Congresswoman Laura Richardson, right, face punishment for a violation of campaign conduct.
The House Ethics Committe recommended Wednesday that Congresswoman Laura… (Bret Hartman / For the Times )

WASHINGTON -- The House Ethics Committee has recommended that Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach) be reprimanded for pressuring her congressional staff to work on her political campaign, dealing a severe blow to her reelection bid.

The House is expected to vote as early as Thursday on the rare punishment of one of its members for violating standards of conduct. Richardson also faces a $10,000 fine.

In a scathing report issued Wednesday, the ethics panel's investigative subcommittee found Richardson improperly used House resources for campaign and personal purposes, compelled congressional staff to work on her campaign and obstructed the committee investigation "through the alteration or destruction of evidence" and "the deliberate failure to produce documents."

The secretive committee, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, unanimously approved the recommendation Tuesday, and Richardson has agreed to accept the punishment, according to the committee.

“Through her actions, she demonstrated a callous disregard for her staff and the resources entrusted to her by the American people,” the report says. “Her disrespect for boundaries between the official and the political realms, as well as the boundaries that define the Committee's jurisdiction, deserves a public reprimand."

Richardson is in a tight race with fellow Democratic Rep. Janice Hahn of San Pedro in a newly drawn district.

A reprimand isn’t as severe as a censure or expulsion, but it is rare — and embarrassing. Richardson does not need to be present for the House vote, unlike a censure that requires a member accused of ethics violations to stand before his or her colleagues during the procedure.

In early 2010, as Richardson was preparing for the primary election, her chief of staff told the district staff that they were expected to work on her campaign, according to the committee report. "When one district office staff member asked what would happen if he did not volunteer to work on the campaign, the chief of staff responded that the staffer "would probably not have a job."

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."

Richardson established a practice where district employees were expected to close the Long Beach office promptly at 6 p.m. and travel immediately  to the campaign office where they were expected to make campaign phone calls and walk precincts, the report says.

"On an almost daily basis for months at a time, Representative Richardson used resources (a term so broad that it can — and in this case does — encompass anything from a sheet of paper to the time of a government employee) that had been paid for by the American people in order to accomplish not the people's ends but her own," according to the investigate subcommittee report.

District office employees were not permitted to eat dinner or run personal errands before they had to report to the campaign office, the report says. When a staffer attempted to leave the campaign office at about 8 p.m., Richardson made a  statement to the effect of, "It's not 9 o'clock yet. Sit down and wait, make more phone calls," the report says.

Richardson told the committee that she "did not intend that her staff feel compelled or coerced to work on her campaign" and has "never taken or threatened any action against any staffer who did not volunteer to work on her campaign," according to a statement submitted to the committee by the congresswoman’s attorney. But she is accepting the punishment, the statement says, because she believes that ending the matter would be preferable to a fight that "would consume many more months and much more of her time and attention."

The committee took Richardson to task for criticizing the investigation, noting "the disturbing irony" in her allegation that investigators "intimidated and frightened her employees, given the horrendous picture so many of her own current and former staff described of their time in her employment, and her own attempts to intimidate them on a regular basis."

Then House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was the last House member reprimanded, in 1997.  Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) was censured in 2010 and then-Rep. James Traficant  (D-Ohio) was expelled from the House in 2002.

A reprimand isn’t necessarily a fatal blow to one’s political career.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was reprimanded in 1990 for official actions on behalf of a male prostitute but went on to chair the House Financial Services Committee.

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