Democratic Rep. Laura Richardson could face jail time for ethics violations

Jonathan Strong | Contributor

New documents disclosed in a complaint from the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) appear to show California Democrat Rep. Laura Richardson and her staff clearly violating congressional ethics rules and potentially federal law.

The documents show Richardson using official taxpayer resources for political events, including fundraisers. “Rep. Richardson didn’t just violate House rules, she likely committed crimes,” said Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director.

In one instance, Richardson’s chief of staff, Shirley Cooks, told all of Richardson’s aides in an email from her official House account, “All staff are required to attend” a fundraiser held Sept. 29, 2010, adding, “Bring spouses and tell interns they have to be there as well. Thanks.”

Another staffer, Daysha Austin, then a district scheduler, told staffers, “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.”

The “staff shirt,” pictured in CREW’s complaint, features a logo that says “California’s 37th Congressional District,” the district that Richardson represents.

The demands on staff to attend a fundraiser and use of official email accounts and resources to coordinate political activities clearly violate congressional ethics rules that taxpayer dollars “may not pay for campaign expenses.”

(Obama admin political appointee takes heat for trips home on taxpayers’ dime)

A strict wall separates official congressional office work from political campaigning; lawmakers and their staff may not even make one phone call for campaign purposes from a congressional office phone, for instance.

While it’s not uncommon for lawmakers to stretch these rules to a degree, flagrant rule breaking in written documents is highly unusual.

CREW included the documents in a complaint to the FBI asking for an investigation. The watchdog group says Richardson’s conduct likely violated federal law. One lawyer told The Daily Caller if Richardson was found guilty of these allegations the maximum jail sentence would be around 13 years, but given Richardson’s lack of criminal history, she would probably be sentenced to less than five years in jail.

Another email included in the complaint shows Richardson asking staff to prepare her for political events.

Richardson “has an event this Saturday (something along the lines of ‘California Dem Party Endorsement’) and she asked staff prepare a binder for her. She needs a lot of the same information that she needed for her last endorsement event (was it Sunday?). I was hoping you could compile a binder again using the same materials from last weekend,” wrote Lucinda Richard, a legislative assistant to Richardson in a March 17, 2010 email.

Another email shows active involvement by Richardson herself regarding one of her official staffer’s political activities.

When staffer Thorne Maginnis requested vacation time to volunteer in a Tennessee congressional campaign, Richardson expressed umbrage she hadn’t been consulted on where Maginnis would campaign.

(California Democrat Maxine Waters charged with House ethics violations)

“I am disturbed by this. I have never authorized any staff to communicate to the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committeee (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 and NOT to go and do what he has done,” Richardson wrote from a personal email account.

CREW’s complaint and the newly disclosed documents come on the heels of allegations in March by an outgoing staffer that Richardson required official staffers to work on her reelection campaign.

In a March 3, 2011 resignation letter, Maria Angel Macias also claimed Richardson subjected her to “constant verbal and emotional abuse.”

“My doctor recommended I take time off,” Macias wrote, apparently due to stress. Attached was a note from Macias’ doctor.

Macias told the Contra Costa Times in a March 14 interview Richardson required staffers to work on her campaign, a major violation of congressional ethics rules and potentially federal law.

“She would just ask me to call them and tell them to come to the campaign office,” Marcias told the Times, “She would ask me to schedule people (staff members and drivers to accompany Richardson) for campaign fundraisers for other elected officials.”

A spokeswoman for Richardson denied Marcias’ allegations at the time.

Republicans quickly pounced on the revelations Tuesday. One GOP House aide said, “This isn’t surprising. This is the same member that doesn’t feel the need to pay her mortgages on time, why would she respect the rule of law?”

In the CREW complaint, the most explosive email is from Cooks demanding all staff attend a fundraiser.

The subject of the Sept. 27, 2010 email, sent to every staff member at Richardson’s Washington, D.C. Office, was “Wednesday at 5:00pm.”

The full email said, “All staff are required to attend Ms. Richardson’s event. Bring spouses and tell interns they have to be there as well. Thanks.”

The week the email was sent, Richardson was holding a fundraiser on Wednesday at 6:00pm with an “American Idol” theme.

“Please Join Speaker Nancy Pelosi for Congresswoman Laura Richardson’s 1st Ever Democratic Idol Fundraiser,” a flyer for the event says.

Other emails from staffers confirm Cooks’ demand for staffers to attend “Ms. Richardson’s event” at “Wednesday at 5:00pm” was a demand they attend the fundraiser.

For instance, the email from Austin, demanding staff wear their special office shirts to “tomorrow’s event,” has the subject “Rep. Richardson’s Democratic Idol,” the name of the fundraiser.

Additionally, one unidentified staffer threatens to resign from the office because the person felt they were being pressured to attend a political event held the night of Wednesday, Sept. 29.

“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. If this is not somehow rectified I am prepared to tender 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,” the unidentified staffer said.

Cooks told this person to “calm down” and help find a replacement to substitute for him or her.

Richardson spokesman Ray Zaccaro said he would be releasing a statement on the allegations shortly.

Update: Zaccaro responded to the allegations but did not actually deny them.

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