WASHINGTON — Long Beach Rep. Laura Richardson sat in a largely empty House chamber, alone and off to the side, as colleagues — Democrats and Republicans alike — told the story of misconduct that led to her embarrassing reprimand Thursday.
"This unfortunate story begins in October of 2010 when the committee first began to receive complaints … that Rep. Richardson required her staff to perform campaign work," House Ethics Committee Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) said, presenting the charges.
Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, a fellow Democrat who represents neighboring Lakewood and is the panel's ranking member, continued. She said that a dozen House members from both parties weighed the allegations against Richardson and unanimously concluded that her conduct had violated ethics standards.
"The misconduct in this matter was serious and … it merits the serious sanction of reprimand," Sanchez said.
The committee found that Richardson improperly pressured her congressional staffers to work on her campaign, verbally abused and intimidated them, used taxpayer-funded resources for personal and political activities, and obstructed the investigation. Richardson agreed to the punishment, including paying a $10,000 fine out of her own pocket.
The rare discipline of a House member comes as Richardson faces a tough election in a redrawn district against fellow Democratic Rep. Janice Hahn of San Pedro, who bested her by 20 percentage points in the June primary.
Though a reprimand is not as serious as a censure or expulsion, Thursday's action against Richardson is only the fourth House vote since 1997 to discipline a member for ethical misconduct. The proceedings drew a smaller crowd — only about a dozen House members — than past actions against better-known, longer-serving members of Congress.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who chaired the investigative subcommittee, summarized his panel's report, accusing Richardson of using House resources for "whatever purposes suited her whims at the moment, whether they be official acts, her reelection or her personal needs."
He ticked off some of the findings: Using staff time during the official workday to conduct campaign activities; repeated use of the House email system to conduct campaign business; and use of a taxpayer-funded car, "which she parked at her house and used as her only mode of transportation in the district, regardless of whether her destination was official, campaign or personal."
Dent then read from a resignation letter from a former Richardson office worker — a disabled veteran who described the work environment as so hostile that she'd "rather be at war in Afghanistan" than continue working for the congresswoman.
"While no member wants to sit in judgment of a colleague, it is our duty to protect the integrity of the House," Dent said.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus whom Richardson was sitting with, said, "I know that she regrets the violations and hopes that the reprimand by the House will allow both her and the House to move on to address the great issues facing the nation."
Finally, Richardson made her way to the podium.
"I do take these findings very seriously and do accept the responsibility," she said.
"I've never taken or threatened any action against any staffer who did not volunteer to work on my campaign," she added. "There is no doubt that a number of staff felt compelled or coerced to do so. That was not my intent, and I deeply regret that this occurred."
Richardson, in a filing with the committee, said she accepted the punishment because ending the matter, rather than launching a fight that "would consume many more months and much more of [her] time and attention, is in the best interests of [her] constituents and of the House."
In closing, Bonner said the committee heard "desperate, sometimes emotional, pleas for help" from Richardson staff members.
"She did a disservice to her staff, to her colleagues, and while it is ultimately up to her constituents in California to be the final judge of her actions, I think it's safe to say that she did a disservice to the hard-working taxpayers from all corners of this country who expect and deserve more from their elected leaders," he said.
About 43 minutes after the proceeding began, the reprimand was approved on a voice vote.