Probe of Congress smells of politics
A woman who embezzled money from Rep. Neil Abercrombie has agreed to aid an investigation of alleged misuse of tax dollars.
A congressional staff member who was caught embezzling money from the offices of Rep. Neil Abercrombie and a California congresswoman has been granted a plea bargain that provides her an avenue of retaliation against her former bosses. The Justice Department's agreement to such a deal reeks of partisan targeting of two tenured House Democrats. The inquiry should be turned over to the House ethics committee.
Laura I. Flores entered the plea on May 2 and was sentenced to a reduced term of six months in prison. She admitted to embezzling $169,000 from congressional accounts of Abercrombie and Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif. In exchange, Flores has agreed to cooperate in an investigation of Abercrombie and Harman using taxpayer money for 2006 campaign purposes or personal errands.
According to one report, Abercrombie's office was notified by the House Finance Office of unusual expenditures. His aides found that Flores had submitted phony expense reports for magazine subscriptions, access to online databases and photocopier cartridges, obtaining reimbursement for the false expenses. Abercrombie immediately fired Flores, and the Finance Office called on the Justice Department to investigate.
Staffers commonly work on campaigns or run errands for the member, but House rules require that it be done on "personal" time -- during evenings, weekends, vacation time or leaves of absence. "There's a line," Abercrombie spokesman David Helfert told the Washington Post. "We know where it is. So we don't cross it."
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, called on the House ethics panel to begin its own investigation of a problem that it warned may be "pervasive." The group also asked congressional leaders to establish job protection of staff members who complain about abuses.
Neither Abercrombie nor Harman faced strong opposition in 2006. Abercrombie spent $810,000 but no staff members were paid to work on the campaign, according to MoneyLine. The campaign was almost a "totally volunteer-centric situation," Helfert said.
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