In the days leading up to a fundraising event last September called “Democratic Idol” — featuring lawmakers as musical acts and celebrity judges — members of the Congressional office of Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) were told they better be there, and they better be wearing the right shirts.
“All staff are required to attend Ms. Richardson’s event,” said an email sent by the Congresswoman’s chief of staff from her official House account. “Bring spouses and tell interns they have to be there as well.”
“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,” said a second email sent the night before the event. The shirts in question were emblazoned with “California’s 37th Congressional District” on the chest and had the official House of Representatives logo.
The emails, part of a larger set of exhibits released Tuesday by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington as part of a complaint sent to the FBI, appear to reveal an improper use of official government resources for re-election and campaign events that may run afoul of Congressional ethics rules or federal laws, legal experts told Roll Call.
The request for an investigation into whether Richardson forced staffers to perform personal errands and campaign work on the taxpayer’s dime is the latest in a string of ethical and legal scuffles that have plagued the California lawmaker, who is less than a year away from what will surely be a contentious primary in a newly redrawn district.
“The fact that this matter already appears to be under review by the House Ethics Committee should not deter the FBI from conducting its own inquiry,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan wrote. “The conduct described by members of Rep. Richardson’s staff is criminal, it does not merely violate House rules. Further, even at the best of times, the House Ethics Committee is reluctant to aggressively investigate its own Members.”
Seven months ago, Richardson’s office confirmed that the House Ethics Committee had “interviewed staff but has not launched an investigation” into allegations that mirror those described in CREW’s complaint. Last summer, the Ethics Committee completed an unrelated investigation of Richardson’s role in an unorthodox financial transaction that allowed her to repurchase a home that was in foreclosure. Richardson was cleared of wrongdoing in that matter, but her mortgage broker was accused by the committee of filing false documents in that transaction.
The Sept. 29 fundraising event, planned by a prominent Democratic fundraiser and hosted by a prestigious law firm, is at the heart of CREW’s request for an FBI investigation. Attendance required donations from $500 to $5,000 to hear performances by a lineup of lawmakers that included Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) and others, according to the invitation. Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and other party leaders acted as judges.
But some staffers objected to their compelled attendance.
One staffer wrote in an email to Richardson Chief of Staff Shirley Cooks, “[A staff member] 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 tender my resignation effective immediately. ... I will be taking action against this office through House leadership if I am forced to go this route.”
Richardson’s office Tuesday denied any wrongdoing.
“Nothing in the CREW letter or its exhibits support the allegations that Congresswoman Richardson ever forced or coerced members of her staff to engage in campaign activity,” spokesman Ray Zaccaro 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.”
Staffers are permitted to attend fundraising events and even work on campaigns, so long as it’s voluntary and not part of their official duties, attorneys said.
CREW’s complaint also includes emails from a junior staffer in the office notifying co-workers of trips out of the office to pick up dry cleaning, visit the Congresswoman’s home during office hours and attend to her mother.
CREW alleges the exchanges demonstrate a misuse of official resources such as government email accounts and BlackBerrys and mandatory “volunteering” that would constitute an illegal “donation” of time.
King & Spalding’s Thomas Spulak said the case law is “very clear” that under “rules and federal statutes” BlackBerrys and other official resources “cannot be used for campaign activities.”
But Steven Ross of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld noted that, “People who work on the Hill tend to be political animals” so it is hard to determine whether they were ordered to attend an event or went voluntarily. Ross said he could not speak about Richardson’s case specifically.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.