After more than two years of legal proceedings, the Capitol Police officer who left a powdery substance at his post shortly after anthrax was found in Senate offices is set to return to his job.
A well-placed source indicated that Chief Terrance Gainer could make the decision as early as today.
A spokesman for the Capitol Police said the department doesn’t discuss “internal personnel matters.” But indications that Gainer intends to reinstate James Pickett were confirmed by the first and second vice chairmen of the Capitol Police Labor Committee, which has pushed hard for his return since a federal appeals court overturned his conviction four months ago.
“We believe that Officer Pickett should be returned to duty with the United States Capitol Police as soon as practicable,” said Andy Maybo, the union’s second vice chairman. “I believe that he will serve everyone who works and visits the Capitol campus with dedication and professionalism upon his return.”
In January, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously overturned his district court conviction. A jury had found Pickett guilty of making false statements. He has been on unpaid leave since the November 2001 incident.
Shortly after a letter containing anthrax was sent to Capitol Hill that October, Pickett left a note and the contents of an Equal sweetener packet at his post in the Cannon House Office Building tunnel. The note read: “Please inhale. Yes this could be? Call your doctor for flu symptoms. This is a Capitol Police training exercize [sic]! I hope you pass!”
The police spent 430 hours and $14,000 investigating the case and preparing for trial, according to the prosecutor, and representatives from the internal affairs division and the general counsel’s office were present throughout.
After Pickett was found guilty the following year, the department indicated it was looking into administrative action. It’s unclear what has been or will be undertaken internally prior to his reinstatement, although the source indicated that he would receive two years of probation, which would apply retroactively.
Pickett’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
Pickett himself has characterized his actions as a distasteful practical joke, and his attorney has asserted that the Justice Department and the Capitol Police were trying to make an example of Pickett. Shortly after anthrax spores were mailed to Capitol Hill, Attorney General John Ashcroft held a press conference stating that anyone who perpetrates an anthrax hoax would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
The defense repeatedly maintained during the trial that none of the Capitol Police officers who found the note took it seriously, and Pickett himself said when he took the stand that he meant it as an editorial statement on the lack of training the force received after the anthrax attacks. The government’s own witness (the officer who took over Pickett’s post and found the note) said she didn’t believe the substance to be the deadly pathogen and consequently didn’t call the Hazardous Device Unit. The force never tested the substance.
When revising the false statements law in 1996, Congress circumscribed its application in the legislative branch to include only two areas: administrative matters and investigation or review. In ruling that the district court erred in denying Pickett’s motion to dismiss before the case went to trial, the appellate court determined the government’s assertions that the case fell within those parameters was “so far from overwhelming that it would have been difficult for Pickett to find [the evidence] in order to controvert it.”