Capitol Police are ramping up surveillance on the House side of the Hill after a rash of robberies in Member and committee offices, leaders of the panel with jurisdiction over campus security said today.
But the staff of at least one Member who has been the target of such a break-in is questioning whether the call to action is sincere.
On Thursday morning, after National Journal first reported that the offices of Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) were ransacked during off-hours, the chairman and ranking member of the House Administration Committee released a “Dear Colleague” letter intended to assuage concerns.
“In response to the recent reports of theft occurring around the Capitol Complex, the Committee on House Administration would like to assure Member offices that the United States Capitol Police ... has taken immediate action to increase surveillance and police patrol activity throughout the House office building,” Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and ranking member Robert Brady (D-Pa.) wrote in their email to Members and staff.
But Josh Dix, Gowdy’s press secretary, told Roll Call he was skeptical whether that announcement would have gone out had it not been for the press coverage. The break-in at Gowdy’s office, which occurred at night and yielded thefts of high-end cameras, a computer monitor and staffers’ personal items, occurred on April 10.
Runyan’s office was subject to two break-ins, one at the end of March and one at the beginning of April, and among more expensive items stolen were personal keepsakes such as the Congressman’s scarf.
Lewis’ office was targeted the most recently, but still weeks ago, on April 23.
“Prior to media reports, I think it was pretty much business as usual,” Dix said on Thursday morning shortly after receiving the internal memo. “I don’t believe it had been taken that seriously. ... There has been a different reaction to it today than we have felt before.”
In response to criticism that a public notice didn’t get out sooner, House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving told Roll Call that his staff wanted to be sensitive to the need to let people know about the thefts without causing undue panic. Instead, Irving said, the Capitol Police has been overseeing a community outreach effort, going door-to-door to Member offices to inform them of the burglaries and advise them on how to keep their valuables safe.
To date, Irving said, 168 House offices have been visited. Though he would not divulge the number of break-ins that have occurred over the past several weeks, he suggested it was more than just three.
“As far as we’re concerned, one is too many,” he said. “And we are looking at each and every one very, very seriously.”
But regardless of who knew what and when, Dix said, the Capitol Police should consider rethinking its security presence in House office buildings. While it has solid checkpoints at the entrances of office buildings, it might also help to have more officers patrolling the hallways of Rayburn, Cannon and Longworth.
Lewis spokesman Jim Specht added that his boss is also interested in whether additional cameras can be installed in some areas of House office buildings.
“He has urged [Capitol Police], in a non-official way at this point, to please take a look into how things stand in terms of tech security and see if there may have been failings where someone could have had a better chance of spotting what was going on,” Specht said.
But Specht and Runyan press secretary Andrew Fasoli also acknowledged that the Capitol Police force is limited in terms of what it can do given the vast area it has to cover and the resources it is given to do so.
“They’ve been doing as great a job as they can, especially given everything they have to do,” Fasoli said. “Obviously we’d love to have as much police presence as possible, and I think there is a great presence.”
Fasoli added that upon reporting the incident to the Capitol Police, officers were on the scene within 10 minutes, dusting for fingerprints and taking statements.
“In the Rayburn Building, it would be pretty much impossible to do any kind of 24-hour security that would be effective without a huge amount of manpower,” Specht said of the building in which his office is located: “There are nooks and crannies and corners and the same is true for portions of Longworth and Cannon.”
Irving, who assumed the Sergeant-at-Arms post in January, said he is looking at a variety of options for streamlining security operations across House buildings and the Capitol proper.
The House Administration Committee’s memo also included a plea to lawmakers and staffers that “all offices remain vigilant and immediately report any suspicious activity to the USCP Criminal Investigations Section.”
Specht agreed that the offices themselves are the first line of defense.
“Mr. Lewis agrees with the Committee on House Administration that this is a wake-up call for offices to realize they are responsible for protecting their own equipment” Specht said.
Irving said he is happy with how House law enforcement has been handling the investigation.
“As you know, things take a little bit of time ... conducting interviews, talking to staff, to anyone who might have had access to those offices,” Irving said. “I feel very comfortable that [officers] are following every investigative lead possible, and I have assurances that they will do everything they possibly can to get to the bottom of the incidents.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.