For ‘brief­ing,’ $20,000 lunch is on the House

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY LUKE ROSIAK

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 last 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 the records re­leased showed.

So­cial vs. of­fi­cial

“Food was pro­vided for at­ten­dees in con­sid­er­a­tion of their di­etar y 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 per tinent 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 per- form 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 al­lega- tions that Ms. Richard­son’s deputy district di­rec­tor re­ceived her full-time tax­payer­funded 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 Wash­ing­ton 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

“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.

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 fore­clo- sure and later re­cov­er­ing it. Her most re­cent per­sonal fi­nance re­por ts, 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 tax­payer­funded 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.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ban­quet­ing at tax­payer ex­pense: Rep. Laura Richard­son, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat (right), used con­gres­sional of­fice ex­pense funds to host an ex­pen­sive, mul­ti­course lun­cheon May 20 in her district, ac­cord­ing to records re­leased last week.

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