DRACUT -- Even as they traded accusations about each other's personal finances, 18-year incumbent Democratic state Rep. Colleen Garry and her Republican challenger, Cathy Richardson, took turns preaching that it was time to drop the "petty" dirt-digging and focus on issues Tyngsboro and Dracut residents care about, like jobs and the economy.
Apparently, Garry and Richardson's respective state party leaders didn't heed the candidates' memo.
On successive days last week, state Republican Party spokesman Tim Buckley accused Garry of lying by stating she made only $782 from her Lowell law practice last year, while Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh asked the state's Ethics Commission to investigate what he claims is Richardson's legal failure to disclose that she owes more than $1,000 in household bills.
Specifically, Walsh cited Lowell District Small Claims Court documents showing Richardson owed a heating-oil company $739.
Richardson was also "sued by a contractor whom she allegedly had failed to pay for work on her house," Walsh said. "A judgment of $7,862 was entered against her (and) it's not entirely clear whether or not Ms. Richardson has complied with this ruling."
The unpaid heating-oil bill caused a default warrant to be issued to Haffner's Service Stations after Richardson failed to show for three scheduled court dates to discuss a settlement, Walsh noted.
"There's nothing in the court file to indicate this (warrant) is no longer active," Walsh said.
When asked on Oct. 15, after her Sun-hosted debate with Garry, about the unpaid heating oil bill, Richardson supplied a reporter with a receipt 36 hours later from Haffner's showing she paid $813 -- the bill in full including late fees.
At the same time, Richardson said her legal dispute with home-building contractor Philip Berard of Dracut was "settled" after she paid him $7,000 of a $15,000 contract to do work on her home that was so badly botched Richardson had to pay someone else to redo it, she said.
Walsh claimed there is no record showing Richardson complied with a court judgment declaring she owed Berard $7,862.
Berard could not be reached for comment.
"Cathy Richardson won't pay her bills, won't show up in court when she's ordered to and apparently won't disclose her unpaid debts as required by law," said Walsh on Thursday. "If Cathy Richardson won't follow the law when she's managing her own finances, how can we expect her to look after taxpayer money on Beacon Hill?"
Richardson responded last Friday: "I understand the efforts that the State Democratic Party is making on behalf of Colleen, (but) it would appear their information is outdated and, as I have said previously, these bills have been paid and settled. I will be happy to cooperate with the State Ethics board to resolve these questions."
Richardson also repeated her previous statement that such dirt-digging into private finances "has no relevance" in the state-rep race.
"I'm frustrated on behalf of the voters that these types of allegations about my personal life continue to arise when the real issues facing the people of Dracut and Tyngsboro are scarcity of jobs, the dragging economy and cuts in education, mental health and public safety," said Richardson.
Meanwhile, Buckley, the state Republican Party spokesman, called attention to Garry's claim made during the Oct. 15 debate that she made only $782 from her law practice in 2011. In Garry's statement of financial interest, which candidates are legally required to fill out, she listed her annual gross income from the law practice as "between $20,000 and $40,000," Buckley pointed out.
There is no discrepancy, Garry said.
"There's a difference between profit and gross income, and I stand by what I stated in the Lowell Sun debate about the profit from my law practice," said Garry.
Buckley also suggested Garry should be formally investigated for failing to disclose her "Maine vacation home" as a financial asset.
"In regards to my Maine 'vacation home,' it's a 23-foot camper in a campground in Kennebunkport; I do not own it," responded Garry. "We rent it for the season, as my family has done for over 30 years."
Garry said she found it "disturbing that my opponent would continue the mud-slinging in this race. She cannot find fault with my legislative record of accomplishments or my voting record, so she is trying to distract the voters with baseless accusations and innuendoes."
Garry showed she is still smarting from negative press received when the state Republican Party accused her of deliberately not itemizing her $50-plus campaign contributions posted online. The GOP charges that Garry is trying to mask the identities of her most controversial donors.
If Richardson isn't masterminding the Republican attacks, she has condoned them by default, Garry said.
"I would have to believe the Republican State Committee -- of which Ms. Richardson's mother (Sheila) is a committeewoman -- and their spokesman would respect their candidate enough to stop the attack dogs in this race, if she so asked," said Garry.
Richardson said Friday she did not direct the state Republican Party to delve into Garry's finances. She added: "My mother's position at the State Committee has no bearing on any of this information. She is working tirelessly for all Republican candidates in the district.
"The residents of Dracut and Tyngsboro who have spent time with me know that I am a person of integrity and honesty," said Richardson. "I intend to talk about issues that pertain to voters and not past personal issues."
At the risk of keeping the personal-finances feud alive, however, in Richardson's emailed statement to The Sun on Friday, she took a shot at Garry's "$782 profit" claim for her law practice.
"It would appear Colleen is asking the voters to take her law practice profit disclosure as a way to deflect the fact that she earned enough to support overhead and salary," Richardson said.
Follow John Collins on Twitter @johncolowellsun.