On Jan. 25, the local field director for Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach) sent an e-mail to a Los Angeles County Fire Department official. He was requesting a helicopter tour for Richardson and her staff.
Her entire staff.
That's all nine employees in the D.C. office, who were being flown to California for training and field work, and all 10 employees in the district office. Richardson herself would make it 20 people, or roughly enough to invade a small island nation. She wanted the tour to take place on Sunday, Jan. 31, with a focus on transportation corridors and homeland security issues at the port.
"I realize that this is relatively short notice," Richardson's district director, Eric Boyd, wrote to Anthony C. Marrone Jr., chief of air operations for the county Fire Department. "The congresswoman understands that your department has important public safety obligations, and we apologize for the urgent nature of this request. We would be that much more grateful if this request could be accommodated."
A number of questions come to mind.
Why would the entire staff need an aerial tour, including employees who do little more than answer phones?
Couldn't Richardson, who had already hosted such a tour with congressional reps from other states, spread out a few maps and tell the staff what she had seen from up in the air?
And was Richardson -- who defaulted six times on homes she owns in Southern California and is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee regarding the foreclosure of her Sacramento home -- aware that most helicopters can't accommodate 20 people?
I'll get to all of that.
County fire officials had some concerns of their own, and passed them on to district director Boyd. On Jan. 26, Boyd e-mailed those fire officials to say he had explained their reservations to Richardson. What were those concerns?
First, according to Boyd's summary in his e-mail to the Fire Department, it was an unusually large group, so two helicopters would be needed. Second, emergency services would be compromised. And third, "the cost to accommodate our request is estimated to be between $20,000-$25,000. This level of expenditure . . . possibly opens both L.A. County Fire and our office to public scrutiny . . ."
Yes, the public might frown on that kind of expensive joy ride, given the lousy economy, budget cuts at every level of government and the huge number of low-income residents in Richardson's district, which includes Compton and Willowbrook.
But despite all that, and the concerns of fire officials, Boyd said in his e-mail, "the Congresswoman would like to speak to someone in the department regarding this request."
That conversation turned out to be unnecessary because the Fire Department decided to give in. Not only did the county supply a helicopter, it got the Los Angeles Fire Department to supply a second one because part of the 37th Congressional District is in L.A., and a single helicopter wasn't enough to accommodate the entire Richardson party.
Both the city and county fire departments told me they try to accommodate requests by public officials for legitimate reconnaissance flights, though no one I spoke to was aware of a time when one member of Congress flew with an entire staff.
Sometimes there are frivolous requests, and they're rejected, said John Tripp, chief of emergency operations for the L.A. County Fire Department. He wasn't involved in granting this particular request, he said, but his colleagues deemed the helicopter tour a worthwhile way to provide "the best . . . understanding of truly what this infrastructure is in this community."
Tripp said the cost for the county helicopter, based on 1.8 hours of flying time, was $3,000. He couldn't explain the estimated $20,000-$25,000 that had been passed along earlier. But the county helicopter and its two-man crew remained out of service for six hours because of fueling, a weather delay and the fact that it had to fly from Pacoima to Long Beach and back. I'm guessing all that time and personnel -- along with the need for two helicopters -- produced the initial higher estimate.
Richardson told me she considered the aerial tour an excellent use of time and money, saying she's been trying to get her staff trained since she won a special election in 2007 after the death of Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald. She argued that her district's location and facilities make it a unique security risk, and that her staffers need to understand the district's complexities in order to put up a better fight for funding of local projects.
During four days in the district, Richardson said, her staff worked long hours. They also toured the area on a bus provided by Long Beach transit, and stayed at the Hotel Maya, whose website describes it as a four-star "luxury . . . boutique resort."
Richardson said the bill for the entire trip came to $19,028.23, not counting helicopter costs incurred by the fire departments.
I spoke to other congressional offices and was told that flying D.C. staff to the area they represent every couple of years is not uncommon, but nobody had heard of taking all 20 staffers on an aerial tour.
It seems particularly indulgent to tie up two emergency-service helicopters to observe things such as how close homes are to refineries, as Richardson argued. Anybody with a computer can go to Google Earth and essentially fly anywhere, zooming in and out as if piloting a helicopter.
"I would disagree," said Richardson, who had her staff send me some photos taken from the helicopters.
The pictures were unremarkable.
And Google is free.