After a number of Capitol Hill offices have fallen victim to a crime wave of burglary and theft this spring, the U.S. Capitol Police continues to investigate who might be responsible, leaving congressional staffers on high alert and clamping down on their personal belongings and office equipment.
At least five congressional offices, all on the House side of the Capitol, were broken into last month, with most of the break-ins suspected to have occurred after office hours when the workplace was empty.
Among the victims, Rep. Jon Runyan, a freshman Republican from New Jersey, who was targeted twice in back-to-back weeks. Sources close to Runyan say that in the first instance a personal Burberry scarf was lifted from congressman’s personal office. A staff member’s jacket was also stolen from a common area of the office, in addition to various knickknacks from office desks, and about $10 to $20 in coins. When burglars came back a week later, a Flip camera and a Canon digital camera were also stolen.
In the office of Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., the perpetrator also took alcohol, including some “commemorative” wine bottles in the office and other items like autographed baseballs. Staffers were also disappointed to learn that a 30-year collection of commemorative eggs autographed by numerous Presidents of the United States from the White House Easter Egg roll was stolen. Everything burglarized from Lewis’s office was taken from staff areas, except for a baseball that Whitey Ford autographed, which was taken from a display cabinet in the congressman’s personal office.
Staffers working for the House committee on Oversight and Government Reform also had cash stolen from their desks. The Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security was also reportedly targeted for theft.
At the office of Rep. Trey Gowdy, a freshman Republican from South Carolina, thieves broke in April 11 and stole valuable electronics, including a 27″ Apple Cinema display monitor, valued at $999; a Canon EOS Rebel XS camera, valued at $479; a Nikon camera, valued at $270; and various office supplies.
According to the members’ handbook, lawmakers are held personally accountable for any thefts from their offices. Once a police report is filed, the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer [CAO] investigates the theft with the help of the U.S. Capitol Police.
In a Dear Colleague letter responding to the thefts sent to all offices in the House of Representatives, the committee on House Administration announced that police have increased surveillance and patrols and asks that all offices “remain vigilant and immediately report any suspicious activity to the USCP Criminal Investigations Section.”
“USCP currently has an active, open investigation regarding these cases,” Lieutenant Kimberly Schneider, a public information officer for the U.S. Capitol Police said. “Anyone with information is asked to call the USCP Criminal Investigation Section (CIS) at (202) 224-0928.”
In a letter obtained by ABC News, Daniel Strodel, the Chief Administrative Officer, wrote Gowdy May 4 to inform him that the CAO had “completed its investigation regarding the Apple Monitor reported stolen” and he was liable to send a personal check for $763.63 to the United States Treasury.
“Under regulations governing allowances and expense promulgated by the Committee on House Administration, the ultimate responsibility for equipment lies with each Member,” he wrote. “Therefore, the regulations require that you be held personally liable for the loss of this item.”
The letter, which is described as standard operating procedure, also informed Gowdy of his right to appeal for a waiver from the Committee on House Administration, which the congressman quickly filed. Gowdy just learned Wednesday that he successfully won his appeal for a waiver.
Now, rather than having to pay out cash from his own pocket, the liability is transferred to the taxpayer, as the cost of replacing the equipment can be covered by a Members’ Representational Allowance (MRA], which is the budget authorized by Congress for each Member in support of their duties to their constituents.
Congressional sources explain that the waiver is almost always granted as long as there is not proven negligence, and the liability rules are intended to bring accountability to a member’s office.
A source within Runyan’s office revealed that staff has since made it a habit to lock any personal items in their desks at the close of business, and the office also changed its cleaning schedule, moving from night cleaning when the office is empty, to an early-morning clean-up as the day is beginning.
Although the USCP won’t reveal whether they have any promising leads or suspects, congressional sources said that the practice is usually for a supervisor with a master key to unlock multiple offices at night to enable a team of custodial staff to move freely throughout the office buildings.
So how common are burglaries in congressional offices? With more than 10,000 employees at work every day on Capitol Hill, sources believe it’s not entirely uncommon.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who recently served for four years as Speaker of the House, said that she is not aware of any instances of theft from any of her offices during her 25-year congressional career, but she said she would not be surprised if something has been taken over the years.
“I don’t think so, not that I’m aware of,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said. “But I’ve been here 25 years, so somebody must have. I don’t know if anything happened way back when, but nothing of any consequence.”