Rep Spends $20K on Lunch 'Briefing' for Seniors

Thursday, 01 Sep 2011 11:36 AM

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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.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC

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