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06.29.11

The Worst Boss in Congress?

A California congresswoman faces an ethics investigation over abusive behavior toward her staff, including allegations that she threatened to fire staffers unless they worked on her reelection campaign. Daniel Stone reports.

Capitol Hill can be a dynamic place, the perfect launching point for a budding career in politics alongside those who have mastered the system and know how to make it work. Or it can be an up-close lesson in the kind of self-absorption and political ego that can trip up some in Washington.

Rep. Laura Richardson, a Democrat from Southern California, may soon be getting a lesson in the latter category—compliments of her own congressional staffers, whose allegations of abusive behavior now form the basis for a formal ethics complaint against her.

The ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) on Tuesday asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Richardson violated the federal Hatch Act, a law that prohibits the use of taxpayer resources and federal employees in election campaigns.

The group, which in the past has highlighted ethical misdeeds of such infamous Washington characters as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, filed a complaint (PDF) alleging a series of episodes where congressional staffers on the government payroll were forced to work for Richardson’s reelection campaign during their “free time” in the evenings and on weekends, or risk losing their jobs.

"Some of her staff... reported that prior to the 2010 election, the congresswoman forced them 'under threat of termination' to work on her reelection campaign each weekday evening from 6:00 to 9:00p.m. and on weekends from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m," CREW wrote in the complaint, which includes inter-office emails designed to back up the staffers’ allegations against their boss.

When reached Tuesday night, Ray Zaccaro, a spokesman for Richardson, downplayed the charges in the complaint. "Nothing in the CREW letter or its exhibits supports the allegations that Congresswoman Richardson ever forced or coerced members of her staff to engage in campaign activity." he said. Richardson's office also pointed out that the congresswoman has cooperated with and has been cleared in previous ethics investigations.

The allegations include that staffers were forced to serve food at fundraisers and run personal errands.

The lines between official and political business, of course, are naturally blurry in most offices. Freshman congressmen lament the inconvenience of campaigning outside of their normal office; many are forced in their first few months on the job to huddle in small rows of cubicles at the DNC or RNC on Capitol Hill to dial for dollars from top donors. Staffers in most offices moonlight for their boss’ reelection drive, sometimes for extra pay, but most of the time pro bono.

But Richardson’s conduct appears to have garnered extra attention. The House Ethics Committee had already been investigating her before CREW’s complaint to Justice. The allegations from staffers cited in the new complaint include that they were forced to serve food at fundraisers, participate in a party fundraiser called “Democratic Idol,” and even run personal errands for Richardson to the dry cleaners, which isn’t unique as a personal favor to a boss, but certainly not in the job description of a congressional aide on government time.

Melanie Sloan, the director of CREW, said she doesn’t have a lot of patience with lawmakers who push the limits of their political power.

“You can be corrupt or you can be vicious, but you can’t be both,” Sloan said Tuesday. “She treated her staff so badly and they talked.”

Being driven to such a length is significant because most staffers never squeal, constantly afraid of either losing their jobs or stunting their career growth by rocking the boat.

The demanding-boss scenario isn’t new to Capitol Hill.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee , a Democrat from Texas, has stirred her own hornet’s nest after going through 11 chiefs of staff in 11 years. This month, departed staffers recounted episodes of Lee’s verbal abuse, including one where the congresswoman is alleged to have screamed at her scheduler and called her a “stupid idiot” while the staffer’s parents were visiting. (Lee later told an inquiring reporter she was "grateful" to be able to work with her staff.) Washingtonian magazine also takes time to rank the hottest tempers on the Hill—a list on which Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, and Rep. Jim Moran, D-VA, also have landed.