Congresswoman Laura Richardson faces ethics probe

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Rep. Laura Richardson and Michael Copon attend the 'Children Uniting Nations' 4th Annual National Conference at The House Capitol Building on June 9, 2009 in Washington, D.C.

Last month, a House panel that polices congressional ethics added a pair of local names to its investigation list.

It’ll see if L.A. Congresswoman Maxine Waters overstepped her bounds when she called a meeting between Treasury Department officials and black-owned banks. The committee will also examine a foreclosure problem that involved Long Beach Congresswoman Laura Richardson.

This week, KPCC’s Kitty Felde looks at what both women may have done – and what could happen if they’re found guilty of violating congressional ethics. We start with Democrat Laura Richardson.

At a recent House hearing on swine flu preparations, Congresswoman Laura Richardson had a long list of questions for Homeland Security officials about surgical masks to keep out airborne germs.
Nurses in southern California complained there weren't enough masks to go around. Richardson wanted to know when those masks would get to hospitals and clinics.

"So if you don't know when, how are you going to figure it out?" said Richardson. "Are we going to get something else in lieu of it? What steps do you plan on taking to make sure our health care workers are in a healthy environment?"

Richardson herself is facing a series of tough questions from the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

The Long Beach Democrat owned a house in Sacramento when she was a state lawmaker. She lost it to foreclosure. But then, she got it back. The committee wants to know if Richardson got special treatment from her bank when she recovered her house.

Congresswoman Laura Richardson issued a statement that said she, like millions of Americans, had to resolve a personal financial problem during the past year.

But, says Richardson, those other Americans weren't subjected to "premature judgments, speculation, and baseless distractions" the way she's been.

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, who chairs the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct wouldn't comment on Richardson's case, citing the ongoing investigation. But her committee voted unanimously to form an investigative subcommittee to find out whether Richardson violated House rules.

"The subcommittee has subpoena power," said Lofgren. "They have the ability to compel witnesses to testify and to grab documents even if people don't want it."

Ethics watchdogs have been closely watching the Richardson housing drama.

"Ms. Richardson is a financially irresponsible person," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Sloan calls Richardson a "deadbeat congresswoman" for a string of debts that include loan defaults on houses in San Pedro and Long Beach, a lien for a delinquent utility bill, unpaid car repair bills, and late property tax payments.

Sloan says Richardson's Sacramento house had deteriorated to such a state it was declared a "public nuisance." She says neighbors watered the dying lawn and hired kids to rake her leaves.

"So she's also under investigation for accepting improper gifts from all these neighbors who are helping pay to keep up her property," said Sloan.

Sloan says the yard work from the neighbors can be viewed as "improper gifts."
But is neglecting your lawn reason to launch a congressional ethics probe?

Melanie Sloan says maybe so.

"I guess you can't stop anybody from being a lousy neighbor or a lousy human being, but when you're a member of Congress you have certain responsibilities to your community," said Sloan. "And keeping up your own property and not basically piggy-backing on others to maintain your property for you seems like the least we can expect from you."

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has some interest in the free yard work donated by Richardson’s neighbors.

But it wants to know a lot more about how Congresswoman Richardson got her Sacramento house back after she'd lost it to foreclosure. It also wants to know why the details of how the house came back to her didn't show up on the financial disclosure forms every member of Congress is required to fill out.

Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, another political watchdog group in Washington, D.C. says it's important to remember that an investigation means questions, not answers.

"We really do have to remember that there have been no conclusions drawn from these investigations," said Brian. "And that's a really important part of our due process that we have to believe innocent until proven guilty."

Laura Richardson isn't the only member of Congress from Southern California who's under an ethics cloud. Tomorrow, we examine the charges aimed at L.A. Democrat Maxine Waters.

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