Laura Richardson - Improper Use of Staff and Funds

Last Updated : Nov 07, 2011

Summary

The basis of this ethics complaints against Congresswoman Richardson are that she forces Congressional staff to volunteer at campaign events under threat of termination, and that she used Congressional staff to perform personnal errands. Much of the supporting information for these claims comes from emails that were discovered by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington - CREW.

From September of 2009 through April of 2010, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington released dozens of emails noting that staff was out of the office to attend to Congresswoman Richardson's laundry. This information was released as proof of CREW's accusations against Congresswoman Richardson and their request that she be investigated.

In March of 2010, an email sent from one Congressional Staffer to others telling them to create an informational binder for Congresswoman Richardson in preparation for an upcoming campaign event. The email cites a previous binder made for a previous campaign event as a good example. Using staff for campaign events is not legal.

In September of 2010, Congresswoman Richardson required staffers to attend a fundraiser called "Democratic Idol" along with their families. One staff member threatened to resign when they were told that they would be working the event. A paid replacement was found after the campaign relented. Staff members were asked to wear official Congressional District 37 shirts.

In March of 2011, Congresswoman Richardson's event scheduler resigned abruptly, citing an abusive environment and being asked to perform tasks that were for the campaign and borderline unethical.

On November 4, 2011 the House Ethics Committee stated that it would be investigating Congresswoman Richardson to determine if she violated the Code of Official Conduct or any law, rule, regulation, or other applicable standard of conduct in the performance of her duties or the discharge of her responsibilities, with respect to alleged use of official House resources and personnel for work related to campaign activities and other non-official purposes.

These actions could mean that Congresswoman Richardson violated numerous laws. In threatening Congressional staff, Congresswoman Richardson could be guilty of intimidation to secure political contributions. These contributions were in the form of volunteering for Congresswoman Richards' events. In telling these staffers to volunteer through official email and at the office, Congresswoman may have solicited campaign donations on federal property. In having these staffers perform personal errands or campaign work, Congresswoman Richardson may have misappropriated Congressional funds. In telling the investigative committee that these actions did not occur, Congresswoman Richardson may have made false statements to Congress.

Congresswoman Richardson responded to the investigation announcement by claiming that it was driven by her race and that similar behavior was being ignored by white male counterparts in the House.

 

Staff Laundry

From September of 2009 through April of 2010, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington released dozens of emails noting that staff was out of the office to attend to Congresswoman Richardson's laundry. One example is shown below.

 

Binder for Campaign Event

In March of 2010, Congresswoman Richardson's Legislative Assistant sent an email to other staffers asking them to create a binder for one of Congresswoman Richardson's upcoming events. The email cites previous times where such action was taken.

 

Democrat Idol

In September of 2010, Congresswoman Richardson and numerous other Democratic Congressmen and women participated in a spoof on American Idol called "Democratic Idol." The day before the event, a series of emails were sent among Congresswoman's staffers threatining to resign over being required to work at the event.

The staffers were also told that they should wear official Congressional District 37 shirts if they had them.

 

Resignation of Events Assistant

On March 3, 2011 Congresswoman Richardson's event scheduler resigned while stating that she was resigning and noting the Congresswoman's insistance that she work on campain events and verbal abuse.

 

CREW Report

In October of 2011, the watchdog group called CREW - Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington - named Congresswoman Richardson as one of the most corrupt politicians in Washington. Their report is shown below and cites using official staffers for campaign work and personal errands, solicitating funds of federal grounds, improper use of appropriated funds, and making false statements to Congress.

MOST CORRUPT: REPRESENTATIVE LAURA RICHARDSON

Representative Laura Richardson (D-CA) is a three-term member of Congress,representing California’s 37th congressional district. Rep. Richardson’s ethics issues stem from misusing official resources for campaign activity and personal benefit. Rep. Richardson was included in CREW’s 2008 and 2009 congressional corruption reports for unrelated matters.

Misuse of Congressional Staff and Resources for Campaign Activity

In a press interview published in March 2011, Maria Angel Macias, Rep. Richardson’s former district scheduler, alleged that Rep. Richardson had required members of her staff to volunteer time on her 2010 re-election campaign. Ms. Macias said she often scheduled campaign events “while on the taxpayer dime,” and that Rep. Richardson regularly directed her to call staff members outside of office hours “to make them work at campaign events.” According to Ms. Macias, Rep. Richardson frequently “would just ask me to call [staff members] and tell them to come to the campaign office. She would ask me to schedule people (staff membersand drivers to accompany Richardson) for campaign fundraisers for other elected officials.” Ms. Macias also said Rep. Richardson’s staff members often had little time for their families because they “had to attend campaign functions.” In her resignation letter, Ms. Macias added that “on more than one occasion [she] was asked to do a task or coordinate an event that was on the ethical borderline and not in [her] job description.”

Although Rep. Richardson claimed she has never forced employees to volunteer, Ms. Macias’ allegations match statements made by members of Rep. Richardson’s congressional staff in other news reports. According to a press report published in April 2010, Rep.Richardson’s former employees and other elected officials complained that “she forces her staff to work on her political campaigns under threat of dismissal.” Some of her staff further reported that prior to the 2010 election, the congresswoman forced them “under threat of termination” to work on her re-election campaign each weekday evening from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.and on weekends from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. For example, Rep. Richardson reportedly forced her staff to act as servers at a campaign event, which allegedly led the staffers to complain to the House Committee on Ethics.

On September 29, 2010, Rep. Richardson held a fundraiser called “Democratic Idol.” On September 27, 2010, using her official House email account, Rep. Richardson’s chief of staff, Shirley Cooks, sent a message stating, “All staff are required to attend Ms. Richardson’s event. Bring spouses and tell interns they have to be there as well. Thanks.”

The next day, another of Rep. Richardson’s staff members, Daysha Austin, used a personal email address to send an email to the House email accounts of a number of other Rep. Richardson staffers stating, “The Congresswoman is asking all staff that has one to wear their staff shirt to tomorrow’s event so we can be visible and easily identified.” Notably, the “staff shirts” employees were required to wear are white button-down shirts embroidered with the words “37th Congressional District.”

Also on September 28, Ms. Cooks, again using her official email account, sent an emailat 11:30 p.m. to the House account of a House staff member asking if he was “available tomorrow at 5:30 to 7:30ish to cover an event at jones day that includes Pelosi, Clyburn and ten more members in a talent show.” The next morning (and day of the event), the staff member explained he was not available, which led another staff member to send the following email to Ms. Cooks:

Daysha just told me I’ll be taking photos at the event tonight. I explained to her I would be leaving early and she ignored me. If this is not somehow rectified I am prepared to render my resignation effective immediately. I am completely serious about this. In addition, for your information, I will be taking action against this office through House leadership if I am forced to go this route.

Soon thereafter, Ms. Cooks responded, “Calm down. Who do you know up there whocould substitute? Someone in another office maybe who would do it as a favor?” The staff member replied, “I don’t know of anyone who would do it as a favor, only those that do it for money, especially at this late of notice.” Ms. Cooks agreed, “Ok. The campaign will pay. Rush to get someone please.”

In addition to requiring staff members to participate in the “Democratic Idol” event, Rep. Richardson also used employees to prepare materials for other campaign-related events. Using official office accounts, a legislative assistant sent an email to two other staff members stating Rep. Richardson asked staff to prepare a binder for her for an endorsement event. The staff member wrote that Rep. Richardson “needs a lot of the same information that she needed for her last endorsement event,” implying Rep. Richardson previously had used staff members to prepare campaign material.

Rep. Richardson also attempted to dictate whether and for which political campaigns her congressional staff were permitted to volunteer. Following a staff meeting in which Rep.Richardson apparently encouraged staff to volunteer on campaigns through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Ms. Cooks forwarded a staff member’s request to volunteer for a race in Tennessee. In response, Rep. Richardson angrily wrote:

I am disturbed by this. I never authorized any staff to communicate to the dccc. I certainly never authorized staff to consider a specific seat. Those are my decisions. The direction was if someone was interested to see me NOT to go and do what he has done.

Using Staff for Personal Errands

Rep. Richardson also appears to routinely have sent staff on personal errands. A typical email, sent by Ms. Cooks to the entire office on September 30, 2009, reads “On an errand for CLR. Will arrive shortly.” In eight emails dated September 24, 2009 through December 1,2009, staff members reported leaving the office to go to the dry cleaner for Rep. Richardson. In 13 additional emails dated October 20, 2009 through April 29, 2010, Staff Assistant Seng Peng indicated she would be out of the office on errands for the congresswoman.

House Ethics Investigation

Rep. Richardson repeatedly has denied reports that an ethics investigation into her misuse of staff for campaign activity is underway, though she acknowledges that ethics investigators have interviewed her staff. Nonetheless, several of the congresswoman’s staff members received an email from the ethics committee captioned “Investigation of Certain Allegations Related to Campaign Activities.” The email further states “Pursuant to rule 18(a), the committee has authorized counsel to conduct interviews, collect records and other documentation.” In addition, Ms. Macias stated in her resignation letter she was “deposed byan ethics investigator with a lawyer present.” According to press reports, Ms. Macias said the investigation seemed to center on whether Ms. Austin “was being paid from her government job while doing campaign stuff.”

Legal Fees

Rep. Richardson’s campaign committee’s April 2011 quarterly report showed thecommittee owed $129,280.38 in legal fees to three firms: Perkins Coie, Reich Adell and Cvitan,and Kaufman Legal Group.

 

Potential Violations

Intimidation to Secure Political Contributions

Federal law prohibits members of Congress from threatening to fire, demote, or in anyway change the official rank or compensation of their staff members for withholding or neglecting to make a political contribution. This law “protect[s] all federal officials . . . from being forced by job-related threats or reprisals to donate to political candidates or causes,” and should be used “whenever a federal employee is actively threatened with an adverse change to his or her conditions of employment to induce a political contribution.” Coerced donations of anything of value, including services, are prohibited by this section.

House ethics rules also make clear “in no event may a Member or office compel a House employee to do campaign work.” This broad prohibition forbids members of Congress “from not only threatening or attempting to intimidate employees regarding doing campaign work, but also from directing or otherwise pressuring them to do such work.”

By forcing her employees to work on her re-election campaign on weeknights and weekends under threat of termination or other job-related reprisals, Rep. Richardson likely violated 18 U.S.C. § 606 and House ethics rules.

In addition, by implicitly threatening reprisals for staff members who sought to volunteer on campaigns without her permission, Rep. Richardson likely violated 18 U.S.C. § 606 and House ethics rules.

Solicitation on Federal Property

Federal law prohibits any person, including members of Congress, from soliciting political donations, including money “or other thing of value,” from anyone in a federal building. Violations of this statute “may arise from solicitations that can be characterized as‘shakedowns’ of federal personnel. . . . [including] shakedowns of congressional employees.” To the extent Rep. Richardson was on federal property while conducting any coerced solicitation of “volunteer” service from her staff members, Rep. Richardson likely violated 18U.S.C. § 607.

Improper Use of Appropriated Funds

Pursuant to 31 U.S.C. § 1301(a), “[a]ppropriations shall be applied only to the objects for which the appropriations were made.” Corresponding regulations of the Committee on House Administration provide that “[e]mployees may not be compensated from public funds to perform non-official, personal, political, or campaign activities on behalf of the Member, the employee,or anyone else.”

House ethics rules also make clear that “[e]mployees of the House are paid from funds of the United States Treasury to perform public duties” that expressly “do not include performing nonofficial, personal, or campaign duties.” In addition, Rule 23, clause 8 provides:

A Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, or officer of the House may not retain an employee who does not perform duties for the offices of the employing authority commensurate with the compensation he receives.

According to the Campaign Booklet published by the House Ethics Committee, there is a “basic principle that government funds should not be spent to help incumbents gain re-election.” The official allowance of House offices, and the goods and services acquired with those allowances,are to be used for House business and are not to be used for campaign or political purposes. The Campaign Booklet clearly states that House offices, including district offices, are supported with official funds and, therefore, are considered official resources. As a result, they may not be used to conduct campaign or political activities.

The Campaign Booklet provides two cases, one in which a member was criminally prosecuted and another in which a staffer was criminally prosecuted, for misusing official resources. In 1993, a former House employee pleaded guilty to a charge of theft of government property after he was found doing campaign work at a time that he claimed he was conducting official business. In 1979, a former member pleaded guilty to charges of mail fraud and income tax evasion in a case centering on claims that individuals on the congressional payroll were paid not for the performance of official duties, but instead for staffing and operating various campaign headquarters in the member’s re-election campaign.

By using her congressional staff members to conduct campaign business during regular business hours, including preparing binders for campaign events, coordinating a photographer for the “Democratic Idol” fundraiser, and directing her district scheduler to schedule staff members for campaign activity, Rep. Richardson likely violated 31 U.S.C. § 1301(a), House ethics rules, and the regulations of the Committee on House Administration.

In addition, by repeatedly using her congressional employees to run personal errands forher, Rep. Richardson likely violated 31 U.S.C. § 1301(a), House ethics rules, and the regulations of the Committee on House Administration.

False Statements to Congress

Federal law prohibits members of Congress from making “any materially false, fictitious,or fraudulent statement or representation” on “a document required by law, rule, or regulationto be submitted to the Congress or any office or officer within the legislative branch.” If Rep.Richardson certified on payroll forms she spent official funds only for official expenses despite frequently requiring her congressional staff to perform campaign and personal work, she likely violated 18 U.S.C. § 1001.

Conduct Not Reflecting Creditably on the House

House Rule 23 requires all members of the House to conduct themselves “at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on the House.” This ethics standard is considered to be “the most comprehensive provision” of the code. When this section was first adopted, the Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct of the 90th Congress noted it was included within the Code to deal with “flagrant” violations of the law that reflect on “Congress as a whole,” and that might otherwise go unpunished. This rule has been relied on by the committee in numerous prior cases in which the committee found unethical conduct including: the failure to report campaign contributions, making false statements to the committee, criminal convictions for bribery, or accepting illegal gratuities, and accepting gifts from persons with interest in legislation in violation of the gift rule.

By forcing her employees to work on her re-election campaign on weeknights and weekends under threat of termination or other job-related reprisals, threatening reprisals for staff members who sought to volunteer on campaigns without her permission, soliciting donations on federal property, and using her congressional staff members to conduct campaign business during regular business hours and run personal errands for her, Rep. Richardson acted in a manner that brings discredit to the House.

 

House Ethics Statement

On November 4, 2011 the House Committee on ethics issued a statement noting that it was indeed investigating Congresswoman Richards.

  

Response to Investigation

The same day that the Committee announced it would be investigating Congresswoman Richardson, the Congresswoman responded that believed that the investigation was based on her race and that the Ethics Committee was ignoring similar behavior from white males.

References

[1] Website: Politico Article: California Rep. Laura Richardson may face ethics inquiry Author: JOHN BRESNAHAN Accessed on: 11/07/2011

[2] Website: Scribdb - CREW Article: Most Corrupt - Congresswoman Laura Richardson Author: CREW Accessed on: 11/07/2011

[3] Website: OurWeekly Article: Congresswoman Laura D. Richardson makes '2011 Most Corrupt' list...again Author: OW Staff Accessed on: 11/07/2011

[4] Website: House Ethics Committee Article: Statement of the Chairman and Acting Ranking Member of the Committee on Ethics regarding Representat Author: NA Accessed on: 11/07/2011

[5] Website: CREW - Citizens for Responsibility in Ethics in Washington Article: CREW Request FBI Investigation into Rep Laura Richardson Author: NA Accessed on: 11/07/2011

[6] Website: The Huffington Post Article: Laura Richardson: House Ethics Committee Investigation Based On Race Author: LARRY MARGASAK Accessed on: 11/07/2011

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