Past Deadline, Laura Richardson Still Hasn’t Paid Her Ethics Fine

Shane Goldmacher

Laura Richardson has a troublesome new debt—this time with the ethics authorities.

The embattled California Democrat, who was reprimanded for ethical misconduct last summer and then rejected by voters in the fall, missed a December deadline to pay off a $10,000 fine for violating House rules.

Now, Richardson has departed from Congress and the jurisdiction of congressional ethics officials who imposed the fine. It’s not clear how much of the $10,000 Richardson has paid—or when she’ll finish paying it off.

Last August, the House formally reprimanded Richardson for improperly forcing her government staff to perform personal tasks and work on her campaign, and then for obstructing the subsequent investigation into her behavior. The settlement included a $10,000 fine to be paid no later than Dec. 1 of last year, according to ethics panel records.

But that date came and went without full payment. Richardson’s attorney, Joe Sandler, told National Journal Daily that the former congresswoman has paid “part of the fine” and “made arrangements ... for a payment plan for the remainder.”

The secretive House Ethics Committee declined to answer any questions about the matter. Asked why the committee could not comment on whether a publicly imposed fine with a publicly announced deadline had been met, Dan Schwager, staff director of the ethics panel, said only, “We can’t comment.”

Sandler said that Richardson has worked out her payment plan with the chief administrative officer of the House; a spokesman there also declined to comment.

Richardson, who regularly ranked as one of the least wealthy members of Congress, has had an uneven record when it comes to paying off debts, both personal and political. She fought a foreclosure on a California home early in her congressional tenure and news reports documented that homes she owned had fallen into default multiple times.

At the end of 2012, meanwhile, her depleted campaign treasury had nearly $530,000 in debts and less than $69,000 cash on hand. Some of those debts are years old. Richardson still owes $10,500, for example, to Derek Humphrey, who managed her successful 2007 special-election bid for Congress. “She’s done her best to slowly pay me what she owes me,” Humphrey said, explaining that he has received occasional payments.

Richardson is indebted an additional $212,500 to the Democratic political consulting firm Shallman Communications for past campaign work. In 2012, the firm worked for Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., the woman who unseated Richardson in November.

That Richardson did not abide by the settlement terms with the ethics panel is not a complete surprise. During her time in Congress, she had a testy and tumultuous relationship with ethics officials, facing two separate investigations (she was cleared in one of them).

In 2012, the ethics panel rebuked Richardson in unusually harsh language, accusing her of “an utter absence of true remorse for her misuse of official resources ... as well as a near total deflection of responsibility for this matter.”

She was accused of pressuring staff to work on her reelection and creating a hostile environment. In a resignation letter later made public, one disabled veteran who had worked in Richardson’s office as part of the Wounded Warrior Project wrote that she would “rather be at war in Afghanistan” than continue on Richardson’s staff.

The ethics panel described Richardson as having “utter disdain” for the committee’s investigative process, noting pointedly that Richardson had demanded to cut short an interview with investigators “so she could participate in an annual congressional softball game.” For her part, Richardson argued in a rebuttal that she had been treated unfairly by the committee.

The investigative subcommittee that led the probe of Richardson concluded that her misconduct continued even after she was aware of an ongoing probe into her misuse of staff. “If the committee fails to exact a steep price for such conduct, the message is one of a set of rules with a toothless enforcement mechanism,” the report said.

Chief among the enacted penalties was the $10,000 fine. While Richardson’s attorney indicated that she intends to pay the fine, it is not clear what kind of authority the House Ethics Committee has to compel the former congresswoman to do so.