Debt owed to Calif. lawmaker looms over re-election bid

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 23, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Rep. Lois Capps, a Democrat from Santa Barbara, Calif., enters her next re-election race owed nearly $120,000 from a woman in Boise, Idaho, a former employee who admitted wrongdoing long ago.

The pain still lingers. So does the slow pace of repayment, which may take decades to conclude.

"Obviously we would like a more aggressive restitution schedule, but this is what the U.S. attorney" negotiated, Bill Carrick, a political consultant to Capps, said Tuesday.

A one-time finance director for the Capps campaign, Boise resident Jennifer Lee Severance still owed the campaign $119,875 as of June 30. Capps characterized the debt as "restitution for unauthorized campaign expenditures" in her latest Federal Election Commission filing.

Capps, whose district spans Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, hired Severance in 1999. Severance became the campaign's finance director two years later.

In 2004, Capps' campaign officials publicly disclosed allegations that Severance had taken campaign funds for her own use. That same year, Severance repaid the campaign $50,000 as part of a commitment to repay a total of about $225,000.

"She was one of the most trusted and respected members of my political family," Capps said that year in a statement, adding that she was "deeply shocked and angry over such a shocking act of betrayal."

Severance, who was 32 at the time, sent Capps a letter of apology that June saying that she was "now in counseling and ... beginning to realize how incredibly thoughtless my actions were," according to court records.

Severance doesn't appear to have a listed phone number and couldn't be reached Tuesday. Two attorneys who formerly represented her could not be reached Tuesday afternoon.

Other campaign workers have found themselves, or put themselves, in similar positions. They can end up paying a high price.

In 2001, for instance, an employee of a Sacramento, Calif.-based political consulting firm acknowledged embezzling about $35,000 from the campaign of then-Rep. Gary Condit, a Democrat from Ceres, Calif. The firm fired the employee and disclosed her confession but didn't publicly name her.

Two years later, now-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, discovered that his campaign treasurer had taken more than $617,000 over the previous decade. The treasurer was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Severance's 2004 revelations briefly renewed news media attention on staff mishandling of campaign funds, but the issue soon dropped from public sight again. Severance continued making modest repayments to the Capps campaign.

In 2007, federal prosecutors quietly charged Severance with making false statements in FEC filings. She wasn't charged with misappropriating funds, though officials say that was what incited the false statements.

"Severance used (Capps campaign) funds ... to make purchases at Costco, jewelry, furniture, fitness stores and to pay her personal ... credit card," FBI Special Agent Gary R. Blevins declared in a January 2007 affidavit filed in federal court.

Severance also acknowledged using money raised for the Capps campaign to "pay expenses for other work she did for the John Kerry for President campaign" in 2004, Blevins added.

"Everybody that knew her was shocked," Carrick said.

A onetime licensed real estate agent, Severance's own finances were in some distress. The year after leaving the Capps campaign, records show, Severance filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. The bankruptcy proceedings concluded in early 2006.

In September 2007, about nine months after being charged, Severance pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements. She faced up to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Instead, she got three years' probation and was ordered to pay back the money.

Authorities directed Severance to provide at least $100 a month in restitution payments, and campaign records indicate that she's been doing so. In March, records show, her probation ended.

ON THE WEB

Rep. Lois Capps' House website

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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