Ethics watchdog calls for FBI to investigate Rep. Richardson

A leading watchdog group is touting new evidence of alleged ethics violations by Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) and calling for a criminal investigation.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is accusing Richardson of habitually threatening her congressional staff with their jobs if they didn’t work on her campaign, and has asked the FBI to investigate.

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“Rep. Richardson presented staffers with an odious choice: work on her campaign, or lose their jobs,” Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director, said in a statement. “Astonishingly, in just three short terms, Rep. Richardson has been the subject of at least two ethics investigations. Now a criminal investigation should be added to the list.”

CREW says it also has evidence that Richardson’s staffers were asked to make political contributions and run personal errands on behalf of the three-term lawmaker — a breach of federal laws barring congressional office funds from being used for unofficial purposes.

Richardson’s office fiercely denied the charges, characterizing the claims as old news. 

“The allegations in today’s letter released by CREW are not new, and they are based on media accounts, information and claims reported publicly months ago,” spokesman Ray Zaccaro said in an email Tuesday.

In November, the Ethics panel interviewed Richardson’s staff about the allegations of campaign activity, but the status of that investigation is unknown. The Ethics Committee did not respond to a request for comment.

The FBI likewise declined to comment.

CREW cited new evidence in the matter Tuesday, including an email from Shirley Cooks, Richardson’s chief of staff, asking all staffers to participate in a September 2010 fundraiser. 

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

A separate email, from another staffer, informs the aides “to wear their staff shirt to tomorrow’s event so we can be visible and easily identified.”

Federal law demands strict firewalls between the activities of congressional offices and those working on lawmakers’ campaigns. 

Zaccaro did not deny the legitimacy of the emails, but challenged the notion that staffers’ jobs were on the line if they didn’t participate.

“Nothing in the CREW letter or its exhibits supports the allegations that Congresswoman Richardson ever forced or coerced members of her staff to engage in campaign activity,” he said. “As this office has previously confirmed, staff were interviewed by the House Ethics Committee in November 2010. The congresswoman and her staff have fully cooperated.”

The allegations are just the latest headache for House Democrats, who spent much of June managing the fallout surrounding former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-N.Y.) lewd online communications with a number of women who weren’t his wife. House leaders were relieved to accept Weiner’s resignation, and hoped to shift the debate back to Medicare, Social Security and other issues of broader significance.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) famously promised to “drain the swamp” during the 2006 campaign, following a series of scandals involving Republicans, but has since been forced to deal with a number of ethical breaches in her own ranks. 

For Richardson, it’s not the first encounter with ethics charges. In 2009, the Ethics Committee launched an investigation surrounding allegations (highlighted by CREW at the time) that she’d received preferential treatment when she refinanced her home — a violation of rules barring most gifts to lawmakers. The committee cleared her of any wrongdoing last July. 

Zaccaro was quick to note Richardson’s exoneration in the mortgage refinancing case, and accused CREW of conducting a personal witch-hunt against the lawmaker.

“It should be noted that, over the course of nearly two years, CREW leveled allegations against the congresswoman relating to the improper foreclosure sale of a home she owned, and although the House Ethics Committee cleared her of any wrongdoing in July 2010, almost a year ago, CREW has yet to apologize for or retract the unsupported allegations the group made in that case,” Zaccaro said.

Sloan hasn’t blinked. On Tuesday, she said Richardson “may well be the most ethically challenged member of Congress.”

“Rep. Richardson didn’t just violate House rules, she likely committed crimes,” Sloan said. “While the House Ethics Committee is already investigating — for all the good that ever does — the FBI should step in and conduct its own inquiry.

“The Department of Justice,” she added, “has a responsibility to ensure members of Congress who violate the law are held accountable.”

This could be politically troubling for Richardson next year, especially given the new congressional district she faces under a proposed map from California’s redistricting commission.

Under that scenario, which hasn’t been finalized, Richardson is drawn into a district with fellow Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez.

Sanchez is the ranking member on the House Ethics Committee.


This story was originally published at 3:20 p.m. and has been updated.