- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A congresswoman who has been investigated by authorities for misuse of public money billed $20,000 to taxpayers for an elaborately catered luncheon this summer, the only one of its size funded by the public.

Rep. Laura Richardson, California Democrat, used her congressional office fund, normally set aside for expenses such as payroll, computers and paper, to host a multicourse luncheon May 20 in her district, records released this week show.

“It was a Polynesian-themed event - Huli Huli Chicken, fried rice, green salad, Hawaiian sweet rolls” for 1,000, said Chris Kuhles of Jay’s Catering, which received the funds. “For dessert, truffle cake.”

Video of the event shows attendees singing and dancing.

“We have a very nice community center, hosting weddings, anniversaries, that kind of thing. Basically it’s like that,” Ms. Kuhles said of the yearly event at the 40,000-square-foot Carson Center in Carson, Calif.

The “briefing” for senior citizens was established by Ms. Richardson’s predecessor, Juanita Millender-McDonald, who died in office, triggering a special election in 2007. In recent years, no other House member has hosted an event anywhere near as extravagant or expensive with office funds, a Washington Times analysis of records released this week showed.

Social vs. official

“Food was provided for attendees in consideration of their dietary and medical needs,” Richardson spokesman Ray Zaccaro wrote in an email. “All expenses associated with the event were in keeping with the rules and standards of the House Members Representational Account” (MRA).

“The event featured information tables ranging from blood pressure checkups to home care and other matters pertinent to those in attendance,” and nonprofits presented tips on topics such as safe driving, Mr. Zaccaro wrote.

House members are allotted $1.4 million to $2 million annually for operations, including Washington staff and district offices.

“There is a ban on using the money for social events, and this sounds remarkably like a social event,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). “The thing about the MRA is it has to be used for official purposes, but once you make that call, no one’s going to sort of second-guess you.”

The atypical use of congressional office funds echoes allegations that have swirled around the congresswoman from the Long Beach and Watts areas.

Two months ago, CREW asked the FBI to determine whether Ms. Richardson “forced staff members to perform campaign and personal work at taxpayer expense” after former staffers came forward.

“She’s repeatedly been very lax with the rules and has made it perfectly clear that she just doesn’t care. Her behavior continues to come close to or cross the line,” Mrs. Sloan said.

A series of accounts from former staffers included allegations that Ms. Richardson’s deputy district director received her full-time taxpayer-funded salary while spending much of her time working for the campaign.

In September, just before a campaign fundraising event, Chief of Staff Shirley Cooks, a holdover from Millender-McDonald’s tenure, sent an email to D.C. staff from her House account: “All staff are required to attend Ms. Richardson’s event. Bring spouses and tell interns they have to be there,” according to CREW’s letter to the FBI.

Ms. Richardson’s stewardship over her personal and campaign finances also appear troubled.

Lobbyists and special interests have hosted at least 22 fundraisers for her campaign, normally dinners at establishments such as Johnny’s Half Shell, according to the Sunlight Foundation. Unlike the May event, those swank dinners are financed by donors. When it comes to later spending those donations, few members of Congress bought food and drinks for themselves and staff at a more frequent rate, as opposed to campaign supplies such as bumper stickers, a review of records categorized by the Center for Responsive Politics showed.

Ms. Richardson struggled publicly with legal troubles after losing a home to foreclosure and later recovering it. Her most recent personal finance reports, which she amended Aug. 19 to disclose savings omitted the previous four years, show hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal debts.

The same two law firms to which she owes money for those personal matters also were paid more than $50,000 in campaign funds, The Washington Times found.

Expense it

Ms. Richardson is by far the largest spender on taxpayer-funded catered events, but she is not the only House member to use her office allowance for such purposes. Last quarter, after Ms. Richardson’s $20,000 affair comes $11,000 spent by Rep. Corrine Brown, Florida Democrat, and $6,300 spent by Rep. Donna F. Edwards, Maryland Democrat.

Of the highest 25 spenders over the past two years, all but six are Democrats and most are members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Several of those members attributed large food and beverage expenses to job fairs held for constituents.

“We held a job fair with 20,000 participants and a couple hundred volunteers. We had a luncheon for the volunteers,” said Nick Martinelli, a spokesman for Mrs. Brown, explaining $9,000 paid to Savor Jacksonville this year.

In the past two years, Ms. Richardson spent $42,000 on catered events, Mrs. Brown spent $29,000, and Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, a nonvoting delegate from the Northern Mariana Islands, spent $35,000. Mrs. Edwards spent $20,000.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, expensed $7,000 at Joe Ragan’s Coffee last quarter, while the office of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, spent $18,000 at Occasions Caterers. In the same period a year prior, when party control was reversed, Mrs. Pelosi’s office spent $49,000 on catering while Mr. Boehner spent $42,000.

The Republican conference and the majority whip’s office, which is in charge of persuading Republicans to vote with leaders, spent a combined $82,000 on food and beverages last quarter.

“In this era when so many Americans are concerned about government spending, it behooves members to be careful” about how they spend office funds, Mrs. Sloan said. “It’s going to have a bad optic even if its not against the rules.”

• Luke Rosiak can be reached at lrosiak@washingtontimes.com.

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