On Unattended Guns, Questions Linger for Capitol Police
Called before Congress for an oversight hearing after a tumultuous few weeks of reports of loaded service weapons left in problematic places around the Capitol and an ongoing hunt for employees who may have leaked internal information, Capitol Police Chief Kim C. Dine promised the acts would be dealt with “firmly and effectively.”
But 10 weeks after that hearing, and six months after the first incident, only one of the officers who left a weapon unattended has been disciplined. The agent assigned to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s security detail who left his Glock and magazine stuffed in the toilet seat cover holder of a Capitol Visitor Center bathroom stall served a six-day suspension without pay. He remains on assignment with the Kentucky Republican.
Disciplinary action is pending for a member of Speaker John A. Boehner’s security detail who left her loaded service weapon in the bathroom of the speaker’s suite 18 weeks ago, where a child discovered it. The case is open for a third officer whose service weapon was found on April 16 by a janitor cleaning the Capitol Police headquarters building on D Street Northeast. She remains in her position in the Mission Assurance Bureau.
Asked Tuesday if the situation concerned him, Boehner said he didn’t think the premise of the question was accurate. “I think these cases have been dealt with and decisions have been made in regards to sanctions on those individuals,” the Ohio Republican said in response to CQ Roll Call’s question during his weekly news conference.
The department has declined to publicly comment on the cases, except in front of Congress, citing a policy of not discussing disciplinary action.
“The Department takes seriously any violation of Department rules, including appropriate handling of a weapon,” spokeswoman Lt. Kimberly Schneider said in a statement provided for this story. “Officers are appropriately trained in handling weapons and any act of misconduct is fully investigated. Employees are held accountable for their actions, and we respect the privacy of our employees when taking appropriate disciplinary action and making any appropriate assignment. We are confident that proper communication of roles and responsibilities is appropriately made through the Capitol Police Board.”
During the May 20 hearing, Dine called the misplaced weapons “unacceptable.” He boasted that his new No. 2, Assistant Chief Matt Verderosa recently re-engineered the agency’s “somewhat fragmented” disciplinary process to be more centralized. The key to good discipline, Dine said, is for it to be “swift and sure.”
Investigating the unattended weapons should be as simple as recovering the Glock, calling the gun range to find out which officer was assigned the serial number that appears on the weapon and conducting interviews to find out exactly what happened, according to Jim Konczos, head of the police union that represents officers. (The bargaining unit does not include dignitary protection agents.)
Capitol Police use criteria established in a landmark case decided by the Merit Systems Protection Board to determine discipline, taking into account tenure, disciplinary record and other factors. Employees are granted a timeline to appeal their punishment, according to department policy, then supervisors determine when they should serve their sentence. In the case of Boehner’s detail, this final step is pending.
By contrast, the Secret Service took rapid action in August 2012 when a loaded gun belonging to a member of Mitt Romney’s protective detail was found in the bathroom of the GOP candidate’s campaign plane. The agency quickly pulled the agent from her job. Though Romney was never considered in danger during the incident, his aides were promptly told about the mishap.
While the three employees who misplaced guns remain on duty, one sergeant interrogated as part of a probe into how CQ Roll Call obtained the photo published with its May 1 story has not been seen at the Capitol since June 22, when she was allegedly called in for questioning related to the photo.
“If you can reassign that person without completing the investigation, why aren’t you reassigning protective details to less prestigious locations? Why wouldn’t you do that? Doesn’t that make sense?” Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla., wondered during an interview outside the Speaker’s Lobby.
Some lawmakers expressed concern any suspension of that sergeant was retribution. But the Whistleblower Protection Act passed by Congress in 1989 does not shield legislative branch workers from retaliation for reporting lawbreaking or mismanagement.
Asked about whistleblower policies, the department stated: “The USCP, as with all legislative branch employing offices, is subject to the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) which includes certain protections for employees including whistleblower protections under [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] and non-retaliation for engaging in any protected activity under the CAA.”
Law enforcement officials, appointed by congressional leadership, say the sergeant disrupted an active investigation. They object to the term “whistleblower” on grounds the department was not covering anything up.
But GOP leaders might never have known their bodyguards left guns in the bathroom without the report. Both McConnell and Boehner learned about the incidents the week the story was published.
After a Capitol Visitor Center worker found the gun lost by a member of McConnell’s detail on Jan. 29, a Capitol Police supervisor showed up on the scene to document the incident. Later that morning, the gun was back in the agent’s hands. He returned to his detail while McConnell and his staff were unaware of the episode. Capitol Police did not notify Boehner’s office after the March 24 incident.
Dine acknowledged during the May 20 hearing that one supervisor who was aware of an officer leaving his or her firearm unattended did not notify the chain of command. It’s unclear how often unattended guns have been reported, because Capitol Police are not required to disclose such incidents.
The Senate Rules and Administration Committee has never called Dine to testify during his tenure as chief, which began in December 2012. Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and ranking member Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., have stayed quiet about disciplinary decisions. Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and ranking member Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, have expressed confidence police would work to prevent such incidents.
“I think it’s fair to say that I and others will not be understanding, accommodating or lenient if this happens again,” Schatz said during a recent interview.
House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., and ranking member Robert A. Brady, D-Pa., both seemed satisfied officers would not be leaving their guns unattended again. Dine told them he wanted to increase the penalty to 30 days of unpaid suspension. The department is also showing a training video at the gun ranges related to weapons handling in the bathroom.
Both declined to comment on what would happen to the three officers whose lapses prompted the training.
“That’s internal. The committee deals with external,” said Brady. “I’m going to let them deal with internal — as long as they’re dealing with it.”
Miller said Dine is under close scrutiny as part of a 90-day probationary period instituted by the Capitol Police Board in response to his letter of resignation. Miller said it would be “very interesting” to see what Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Frank J. Larkin and House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving recommend.
Nugent, a former police officer and sheriff, said Tuesday he was sending a letter to Dine. Nugent said during an earlier meeting with the chief that the department does a “disservice” to its employees and to Congress by withholding information on internal investigations.
“I think we have a right to know as the public that you protect,” Nugent said in a July 15 interview. “You don’t release it because the [Capitol] Police Board doesn’t want it released. There’s no law. But … you’re saying, ‘It’s sensitive.’ That’s all bullshit. Other police agencies around the country release that stuff. Once the investigation is complete and adjudicated, it gets released.”
In 2004, Roll Call discussed with Capitol Police General Counsel John Caulfield the department’s request to exempt itself from information sharing. Language added to an appropriations bill exempted Capitol Police from having to release to another entity any information “that relates to actions taken … in response to an emergency situation, or to any other counterterrorism and security preparedness measures” unless they determine releasing the information will not “jeopardize the security and safety” of the Capitol complex.
At the time, sources said Capitol Police could use the broad authority as a statuary justification for withholding information from the Office of Compliance. There was concern the move would shut down safety and health investigations the police deemed sensitive at a time when the OOC was probing allegations related to anthrax contaminations, failed evacuations and remediation of a red ants at outdoor kiosks.
Konczos said he thinks “a lot of these cases should be made public,” although he knows his opinion might not be popular among the rank and file. “Because members, staff, the public — they have a right to know. … You’re a public servant. You probably do lose some of your being anonymous.”