Authorities are investigating whether a former executive assistant in the U.S. House of Representatives misappropriated thousands of dollars to finance a vacation and personal items, as part of a widening effort to determine whether congressional accounts are inadequately monitored, according to two sources familiar with the inquiry.
At issue in the ongoing probe by the House inspector general is the role of a former assistant to Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is not complete.
The aide, whom Sanchez says was dismissed, reimbursed the lawmaker nearly $10,000 around the same time that her work for Sanchez ended, according to congressional records.
Caroline Valdez made a series of four unusual payments to her boss' office at the end of 2006, according to disbursement books maintained by the clerk of the House. Two of those transactions were labeled "reimb: payment error." Valdez did not respond to several cellphone messages seeking comment.
The reimbursements to Sanchez came during a financial quarter when the lawmaker placed three staffers -- including her scheduler and legislative director -- temporarily on the House payroll of her sister, Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood), records show.
The reason for that decision remains unclear. During the period in question, the lawmakers shared the same bookkeeper, according to congressional records. The bookkeeper is not under investigation by the inspector general.
Loretta Sanchez, elected to the House in 1996, declined to explain why Valdez returned the money. On Capitol Hill Thursday, Loretta Sanchez said: "It's a personnel issue. Unfortunately, I'm not at liberty to discuss it. It's not for me to decide. It's up to the House counsel, because all employees are really employees of the entire House."
Paula Negrete, her communications director, said she could not comment on the shift of personnel to Linda Sanchez's staff.
Michael Torra, chief of staff for Linda Sanchez, also cited personnel factors in declining to comment, but said the office is cooperating with House authorities.
In testimony this week, Inspector General James J. Cornell told the House Administration Committee that he is investigating financial irregularities involving a former staffer who had control over an unidentified lawmaker's books. At the close of his inquiry, Cornell could forward his findings to the House counsel and to federal prosecutors.