Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a statement from Lt. Kimberly Schneider of the U.S. Capitol Police. She did not make any comment about processing reports.
House officials on Thursday alerted members and their offices to “remain vigilant” and to report any suspicious activity in light of news of the break-ins over the last month into at least three lawmakers’ offices and several committee offices.
The “Dear Colleague” letter from House Administration Committee Chairman Dan Lungren, R-Calif., and ranking member Robert Brady, D-Pa., also assures members that U.S. Capitol Police “has taken immediate action to increase surveillance and police patrol activity throughout the House office buildings.”
The letter was circulated following a National Journal Daily report about the break-ins that have U.S. Capitol Police gumshoes working to find a pattern and the culprits, with missing items ranging from cash and expensive computer equipment to autographed baseballs and alcohol.
In at least four of the cases, thieves broke into the offices at night when doors were locked, leading some staffers to believe they were victims of an inside job.
“The evidence points to someone with access to my office, and other offices in the Capitol complex, as the perpetrator,” freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., surmised in a letter to the House’s Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, NJ reported.
In the alert later on Thursday to members from Lungren and Brady confirming the NJ report, they instruct that “all offices remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to the [Capitol Police] Criminal Investigations Section."
Additionally, the committee alert requests that offices immediately report stolen items to the U.S. Captiol Police House Division.
Other offices hit along with Gowdy’s—some of which handle information dealing with issues of national security, though nothing of a sensitive nature was reportedly taken—include those of Reps. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., and Jon Runyan, R-N.J.; the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee; and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Those looking for some common link might note that Lewis serves on Appropriations; Gowdy sits on Oversight; and Runyan is a member of the Armed Services Committee. Also, staffers on the House Oversight Subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia, Census, and the National Archives, which Gowdy chairs, reported that $200 of their money went missing during business hours.
But whether that represent anything more than coincidence is uncertain.
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In each case, items stolen were high in street value. Computer monitors, cameras, and cash were taken most frequently; other items included blazers, personal iPods, and, in three cases, alcohol. Lewis’s office reportedly lost four signed baseballs, six bottles of wine, and a $200 set of presidential Easter eggs. In at least four cases, thieves broke into the offices during the evening while doors were locked.
Matthew Van Patton, Gowdy’s chief of staff, is fighting an uphill battle with House Administration to replace two cameras and a computer monitor—totaling $1,750 in value—that were missing from the lawmaker’s office after the April 10 break-in.
House rules require members to personally pay a fee as well as take the replacement cost out of their office stipends when equipment is stolen, but they can apply for a waiver and if its approved they need not pay. Almost a month after the incident, the chief administrative officer notified Gowdy that he had to cut a personal check totaling $763.63 payable to the U.S. Treasury as a penalty.
CAO spokesman Dan Weiser said that is standard practice.
It is meant to “establish accountability of taxpayer resources”—in other words, partially counter the taxpayer burden of paying for the same item twice, he said.
Gowdy appealed, accusing the House Administration Committee of punishing him for being the victim of an inside job—all the doors were locked when his staff opened the office on April 11.
Gowdy added that Capitol Police confirmed his suspicion and pointed to a “rash of numerous similar occurrences” in House buildings.
Next door to Gowdy, Runyan’s office was burglarized on the same night—it was the second break-in at his office.
Runyan Chief of Staff Stacy Barton wants a better notification system. She said that other staffers dropped by when they heard by word of mouth but that no official notice went out.
“Clearly it’s going on, and we’re just not hearing about it,” Barton said.
Barton said she found it easier to replace the stolen items out of pocket rather than tap the office fund and pay a fine. Runyan, like Gowdy, is a new member who had to furnish most of his office last year. To show fiscal austerity, the House trimmed office budgets this year. Van Patton said he was proud to send $126,000 of his first year’s stipend back to Treasury, but now he has to tighten the belt further to replace the stolen equipment.
“It doesn’t feel fair to me,” Van Patton said. “I managed my budget, I bought responsibly. Security is not my job.”
And without better surveillance of the building, Van Patton is reluctant to replace the items.
“I have no assurance this is not going to happen again,” he said.
The House Administration Committee does not provide insurance for office property, but a committee spokesman said members may buy private insurance.
Billy House contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the May 17, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.
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