By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 3, 2008
A former aide to Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) was sentenced to six months in prison yesterday after prosecutors petitioned to reduce her penalty in exchange for help with an inquiry into whether lawmakers used congressional staff members and resources to support their political campaigns, according to a source familiar with the case.
Laura I. Flores faced nearly two years in prison after pleading guilty in January to wire fraud for embezzling $200,000 from official accounts controlled by her former employers. Flores submitted phony expense reports for photocopier cartridges, magazine subscriptions and database access between January 2005 and December 2006, according to government court filings.
In the course of plea negotiations, however, Flores provided testimony and documents as part of a previously unreported Justice Department investigation into whether members of Congress used phones, supplies and staff time for campaign purposes, according to the source.
Investigators also are looking into whether members of Congress directed their staffs to perform personal errands on government time, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is at an early stage.
Congressional aides are prohibited from raising money or participating in campaign activities while on the government payroll, said election law expert Lawrence M. Noble. "It's a serious matter," he added.
To adhere to the letter of the law, staff members generally take vacation time or work on weekends to help reelect the lawmakers for whom they work. Many members of Congress also maintain separate office supplies and equipment for campaign purposes.
Flores was sentenced in the Alexandria courthouse by U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema.
Federal prosecutors and defense lawyers filed legal memos under seal in the days before yesterday's sentencing, an unusual step in a simple embezzlement case.
Prosecutors referred the case to the Justice Department's public integrity unit, the source said.
Both Chuck Rosenberg, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, and the lead prosecutor, Steve Linick, declined to comment yesterday through spokesmen.
Timothy J. Coleman, Flores's attorney at Dewey & LeBouef in the District, said that "Laura Flores is relieved that the case is now behind her."
Flores, an Arlington resident, earned $132,000 in 2006, the last year for which her pay information was available on the electronic database LegiStorm.
In a statement earlier this year, Abercrombie criticized his former aide for profiting at the expense of taxpayers. "She will now have to accept the consequences," he said at the time.
Abercrombie was traveling yesterday afternoon, but his communications director said he was not aware of any basis for allegations that Abercrombie or other lawmakers had commingled their congressional and campaign functions.
"That is such a sensitive spot and has been abused in the past, so I think most offices are absolutely scrupulous about it," said Dave Helfert, the Abercrombie aide. "It's just something you have to be careful of."
A spokesman for Harman did not return telephone calls to the lawmaker's office.