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House Ethics Committee urges reprimand for Rep. Laura Richardson

By Richard Simon and Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times –

WASHINGTON — She reportedly made congressional staffers work on her campaign into the night — and when one asked to go home at 8 p.m. she ordered that person to make more phone calls. Staffers described her as verbally abusive and intimidating. And she used taxpayer money when planning a political fundraiser called “Democratic Idol,” featuring members of Congress singing karaoke.

For this and her “callous disregard for her staff and the resources entrusted to her by the American people,” the House Ethics Committee recommended Wednesday that Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., be reprimanded, a rare and embarrassing punishment that deals a severe blow to her already lagging re-election bid.

The House is expected as early as Thursday to vote on the reprimand of one of its members for violating standards of conduct. If approved, it would be the fourth House vote since 1997 to discipline a member for ethical lapses. Richardson also faces a $10,000 personal fine to pay for the misuse of government funds.

In a scathing report, the ethics panel found Richardson improperly compelled her congressional staff to work on her campaign, used taxpayer-funded resources for personal and political activities, and obstructed the investigation.

“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,” the report said.

The committee, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, unanimously voted to seek the reprimand for seven ethics violations, including engaging in conduct that “brought discredit upon the House.”

Richardson — who in the June primary trailed far behind fellow Democratic Rep. Janice Hahn in a redrawn Los Angeles-area district — has agreed to the punishment. In a statement Wednesday she referred to her 22-page statement to the panel in which she disputed a number of the committee’s accounts of events.

A reprimand isn’t as severe as a censure or expulsion. 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 Rep. Richardson’s office, an employee’s job was whatever Rep. Richardson said it was, whether that assignment was within the rules or not,” the investigative panel said.

During the 2010 campaign, Richardson’s congressional staff was expected to close the Long Beach, Calif., office promptly at 6 p.m. and travel to the campaign office and work on the campaign weeknights from 6:30 to 9, the report says. When a staffer attempted to leave the campaign office at about 8 p.m., Richardson said words to the effect, “It’s not 9 o’clock yet. Sit down and wait, make some more phone calls.”

Richardson “relied on a combination of verbal abuse, inequitable official scheduling, and outright intimidation to conscript her district office employees in service of her re-election,” the report says.

When a staffer questioned Richardson about the propriety of directing staff to work on the campaign, the congresswoman responded, according to the report: “I’m not doing anything that others don’t do … Everyone uses House staff for campaign work … My name is on that door, it’s my decision.”

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 her statement to the committee.

But she accepted the punishment because she believes that ending the matter, rather than staging 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.”

No one answered the phone at her Carson, Calif., campaign headquarters Wednesday, and her last known campaign manager, Steven E. Belhumeur, said in an email that he is no longer with the campaign.

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.

Richardson faced daunting challenges in the solidly Democratic district even before Wednesday’s report.

Hahn beat her 60 percent to 40 percent in the primary. Richardson was the victim of embezzlement by her campaign treasurer and has struggled to raise campaign funds. By June 30, Richardson raised about $482,000 but her campaign was $512,000 in debt. Hahn collected some $2.1 million and had nearly $192,000 in debts.

“She should move on, focus on what she’s done,” said Eric Hacopian, her former consultant. Her message, he added, could be “ ‘I’m not a perfect person. I don’t play with the Washington group but I’m one of you. I understand your problems and I serve you.’ ”

But Dermot Givens, an attorney and political consultant, called the report “the final nail in the coffin” for Richardson.

Hahn said in a statement: “The report speaks for itself. … Ultimately the House will vote and voters here in the district will make their own judgments.”

Richardson, who has won some tough elections to the California Assembly and then to Congress in 2007, has faced bad publicity in the past for defaults on home mortgages and complaints from her Sacramento neighbors about the unkept condition of her home there.

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