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News / Politics

Staffers bear the brunt of threats aimed at district offices

By Ryan Tarinelli and Justin Papp, Ryan Tarinelli and Justin Papp, CQ-Roll Call
Published: June 2, 2024, 6:00am

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders wasn’t at his Burlington, Vt., district office when a man dumped a liquid at the bottom of the door and set it ablaze on a Friday morning last month — but seven of his staffers were.

The fire scorched the door, stained the wall with fire damage and left parts of the building flooded from the sprinkler system, according to an affidavit from a federal agent. The staffers escaped without injury.

While members of Congress have faced an elevated threat landscape in recent years, their staff at congressional district offices across the country can bear the brunt of the vitriol and face potential danger.

Those offices are known for handling issues that fall well outside partisan politics, such as dealing with passport problems or helping with federal benefits.

Staff and lawmakers say occurrences at district offices, which can range in intensity from verbal abuse to phone threats to in-person confrontations, are making the job that much more difficult.

Dealing with the threats can divert staff attention, sink office morale and even temporarily close in-person district office operations.

“It can be very, very traumatizing,” said Rep. Joseph D. Morelle, a New York Democrat who was tapped last year to chair a task force on member safety. “I think every member and their staffs are on alert.”

The dynamic dovetails with the broader threat landscape facing Congress, where malice has become a perpetual aspect of the job for many members, whether they are high-profile or rank-and-file.

Citing elevated threats to members and staff in recent years, Congress’ law enforcement agencies have moved to tighten security at offices located off the Hill. Capitol Police have opened field offices to address member safety, and the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms have focused their efforts on providing security briefings and site visits to district offices.

Sometimes the threats and verbal abuse faced by district offices are rooted in politics, while other times safety concerns emerge from constituents angry about unrelated matters.

In the Sanders office fire case, a judge decided to keep the suspect in custody, and in making that determination mentioned the man’s “serious mental health history,” the VTDigger reported. That history, the judge said, also has involved reporting that “drones are reading his mind.”

Earlier this month, a staff member for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a letter to the judge in the criminal case against Paul Pelosi’s attacker, said new staffers are trained to de-escalate hostile conversations and “to report to Capitol Police hundreds of potentially threatening communications.”

“No one ever gets used to listening in excruciating detail to how someone wants to hurt or kill the Speaker or us, and no one ever knows who is going to act on that threat,” the staffer wrote.

“The time taken to process the call or voice mail, interact with the Capitol Police threats division, and process the emotional impact, is time we do not budget for,” they wrote. “It disrupts the ability to execute necessary tasks and to serve constituents. Most importantly, it instills a fear of potential violence that, as we have seen, is all too real.”

District office incidents

At times, security measures or quick action from district staff have stopped an incident from escalating.

Federal authorities said a man threatened a senator last fall, vowing in a voicemail to “finish what Hitler started.” Sen. Jacky Rosen’s office confirmed to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and other outlets that she was the unnamed lawmaker.

A day after the threatening messages, the man appeared to arrive at the federal courthouse that houses the senator’s Las Vegas district office, according to the federal complaint.

The man wanted to see the senator, according to the complaint, but he was denied entry to the courthouse after refusing to give a court security officer a closer look at his identification card.

“The individual became agitated and started yelling and shouting profanities, including ‘To kill every last Israeli terror-f—ing-rist’ while walking on Las Vegas Boulevard,” the complaint states.

Last June, staff at a district office in Connecticut were able to lock a door before a military veteran wearing a tan tactical vest could get in, according to authorities, who did not name the specific office. The man, who had previously complained to the government about his benefits, appeared to have two knives strapped to the back of the vest, authorities said.

Staff told the man he wasn’t welcome because of previous threatening behavior, but the man started to yell through the intercom and became irate, causing the office staff to “fear for their safety,” authorities said.

He returned later that day, stood outside the office door, yelled through the intercom in a “threatening manner” and was escorted out by the building manager and local police.

Some lawmakers have temporarily shut down their in-person operations at district offices over threats or safety concerns. Republican Rep. Rich McCormick announced last year that he was temporarily closing his physical district office in Cumming, Ga., because of “ serious threats of violence against my staff.”

Connolly district office attacked

And even when security steps have taken place, sometimes they aren’t enough.

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Capitol Police had recently completed a security assessment on Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerald E. Connolly’s Fairfax office when last May a baseball bat-wielding constituent entered the office in search of the congressman, who was out at an event. Xuan-Kha Tran Pham, who faces charges related to the incident, is accused of assaulting a staffer and an intern.

“If there’s a lesson I’ve taken away from this horrible incident, it’s that there may be headlines associated with the actual event, but what news stories really don’t pay attention to is how long it takes to recover,” Connolly said earlier this year. “It’s months, and months, and months, and months.”

In the aftermath of the attack, Connolly beefed up security and ended the open-door policy he’d had since coming to Congress in 2009. But offices like his, located in commercial spaces with heavy foot traffic and lax security, present a logistical issue for law enforcement tasked with keeping members of Congress and their staff safe.

“There are hundreds of district offices across the country. Some of them are in federal buildings, and if you’re in a federal building, you’ve got airtight security. You’ve got metal detectors, you can’t bring a weapon. There’s screening. There are cameras,” Connolly said. “But if you’re in a commercial office building, you don’t have any of that. And most of us have offices in commercial office buildings or retail centers.”

Michael Suchecki, spokesperson for the Congressional Progressive Staff Association, said there needs to be an appropriate balance, “where staff can both have their safety and security prioritized without detracting from the critical work they engage in with constituents across the country.”

Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost, D-Fla., said it’s difficult to stop a threat from coming in, but trauma-informed practices can be implemented, along with allowing staff to take mental health breaks. Steps can also be taken to make sure staff feel safe in the office, he said, such as making sure there are shatterproof windows, security cameras and lighting outside the office at night.

“Making sure that if a staff receives a threat — or they see a threat come in, or the member sees a threat — at a minimum, at least they can rest assured that they’re safe in the office,” he said.

Authorities respond

Agencies responsible with member security have responded to these events by attempting to tighten security at the district level.

The House Sergeant-at-Arms recently launched a new platform, dubbed the “Secure Member Portal,” that allows offices to submit and track requests related to district office security, threat reports and residential security. The SAA, in conjunction with the Capitol Police, has also begun offering “security awareness briefings” in members’ districts that provide best practices on how to respond to security issues.

House Sergeant-at-Arms William P. McFarland testified at an appropriations hearing in April that SAA employees provided 110 such briefings in 2023 with congressional and law enforcement partners. The agency requested $100,000 for briefings and $60,000 for the District Security Service Center, which conducts site visits at district offices, in the coming fiscal year.

And Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Karen Gibson testified last week at a Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee hearing that her office had provided security training at 43 senators’ state offices and facilitated facility security assessments at 89 offices. She also said her office was “working through” a pilot program to strengthen reception areas of state offices by providing gunfire-resistant ballistic film for windows and glass.

Capitol Police, meanwhile, have since 2021 operated field offices in California and Florida to help investigate threats against members away from Washington. The department also recently created the Protective Intelligence Operations Center, the department’s fusion center that centralizes member protection functions and strengthens security away from the Capitol.

Amy Rutkin, who until earlier this year was Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s chief of staff for more than two decades, said she witnessed increasing fear among staff toward the end of her time on the Hill, particularly after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Threats are “unfortunately part of the fabric of these jobs now, which makes the long hours and low pay feel even more burdensome,” Rutkin said. “There’s just an elevated awareness that certain things can happen. It’s a very unpleasant and dark side of public service right now.”

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