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The political (and possibly criminal) fallout of Laura Richardson's ethics violations

The House Ethics Committee says there is
The House Ethics Committee says there is "substantial reason to believe" Congresswoman Laura Richardson violated rules by requiring staffers to work on her campaign.
Kitty Felde/KPCC

The House of Representatives will vote Thursday on whether to reprimand Long Beach Democrat Laura Richardson after the Ethics Committee said there was "substantial reason to believe" Richardson violated rules by requiring staffers to work on her political campaign and then obstructing an investigation. The fallout could be both political and criminal.

It’s not uncommon for political staffers to volunteer for campaigns in their off-hours. But, officials say, that’s not what happened in 2010 in the Washington and Long Beach offices of Democratic Congresswoman Laura Richardson.  

Melanie Sloan, the head of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), says that Richardson staffers weren't just advised to show up at campaign events, "they were required to." The House Ethics Committee says Richardson’s chief of staff threatened staffers in the Long Beach office, saying if they didn’t show up for campaign work, they could conceivably lose their jobs.

Sloan calls Richardson’s behavior "tyrannical and abusive," ordering staffers to go straight to the campaign office after hours without stopping for dinner.  

"If that’s not tyrannical," Sloan says, "I don’t know what is."

Richardson also used supplies from her Congressional office for her campaign and was driven to fundraisers in her government car.  

Eventually, irate staffers complained to the House Ethics Committee. After a two-year investigation, Richardson avoided a hearing by admitting she violated House rules (including charges she tried to alter or destroy evidence and influence witnesses). She’ll pay a $10,000 fine and the full House will vote on the committee’s recommendation for a reprimand.   

But Melanie Sloan says people should go to jail for obstruction of justice.

"If she made false statements to the committee at any point," she says, "that would be a federal crime and so [the Department of] Justice could indeed investigate that."

Despite the guilty plea, Richardson insists she never intended to compel or coerce her staff to work on her campaign, and disputes the evidence that they were threatened. In a statement, the congresswoman said she would have been able to present a "full defense" at an Ethics hearing, but that that would take months and "considerable time and attention" when the House "will be better served considering matters of critical importance."

The political fallout is yet to be measured. Political scientist Ron Schmidt of Cal State Long Beach says it isn’t necessarily fatal to her re-election campaign, "but it certainly doesn’t help."  

He notes that Richardson’s chances in her fall runoff against fellow Democratic Congresswoman Janice Hahn may be slipping. In the June primary, Richardson got 40 percent of the vote to Hahn’s 60 percent in a battle between incumbents caused by redistricting.  

"She had an uphill battle," he says. "I think it just makes her job tougher."

Hahn’s internal polling shows her ahead of Richardson two-to-one. Political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson says Hahn is way ahead in fundraising, too.

He calls Janice Hahn "very well-heeled, very well connected" with "a lot of labor support."

And, he says, ethics questions have always been part of the campaign, with Richardson possessing "a history of, to say the least, allegations of improprieties."

Two years ago, the House Ethics Committee dismissed allegations that Richardson got preferential treatment to stop foreclosure of her house. Hutchinson says ethics will remain an election issue in the 44th district race.  

But Schmidt says Richardson’s guilty plea isn’t likely to affect undecided voters, and that voters who form their opinions very late will "probably not be even be aware" of the ethics violations.

The House Ethics Committee “strongly discouraged” Congresswoman Richardson from using staffers on her fall re-election campaign, and those who do help out have to sign a waiver saying they’re doing so voluntarily.