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Months after explosive report, lawmakers still unsure how to handle Capitol architect

J. Brett Blanton keeps his job as procedural questions swirl

Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton allegedly misused a government-issued car and misrepresented himself as a law enforcement officer,  according to an October inspector general report.
Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton allegedly misused a government-issued car and misrepresented himself as a law enforcement officer, according to an October inspector general report. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It’s been three months since a damning inspector general report was published listing a series of alleged offenses committed by Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton, and more than two months since a group of Democrats called for his resignation.

The allegations outlined in the Oct. 26 report are staggering: Blanton misrepresented himself as a law enforcement officer. He misused a government-issued vehicle intended for home-to-work use, taking it as far as Florida and allowing his wife and daughter to drive the SUV. And he and his wife offered tours of the Capitol to “patriots” while the complex he’s tasked with maintaining and protecting was closed to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. His misdeeds may have cost taxpayers an estimated $14,000, the OIG found.

“The OIG identified a significant amount of administrative, ethical and policy violations as well as evidence of criminal violations throughout the investigation,” the report states. Blanton did not respond to a request for comment. 

“Blanton’s actions have violated every pillar the OIG operates under including theft, fraud, waste and abuse against not only the AOC but also the taxpayer,” the report continues.

And yet Blanton, who in 2019 was nominated to a 10-year term by then-President Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate, remains in the job as lawmakers and experts ponder procedural questions and mull oversight of the obscure Legislative Branch office.

For one — can Congress remove someone from the presidentially appointed position? On that, there’s no precedent or consensus.

“The statute doesn’t provide for any removal terms,” said Kevin Mulshine, a former inspector general at the Architect of the Capitol. “Because removal is not mentioned as a possibility, the only way that he can be removed is through the president. … Congress doesn’t have any power to remove him. So they’ve got to figure out, in this case where clearly some discipline is warranted, what happens with him.”

Lawmakers on two committees tasked with oversight of the AOC — Senate Rules and Administration and House Administration — appear to agree with Mulshine.

Senate Rules Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar and former ranking member Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican who retired earlier this year, floated legislation in December that would establish procedures for removing the architect. Introduced just two weeks before the end of the 117th Congress, it did not advance out of committee.

The bill would codify Congress’ right to remove the architect either by impeachment or by a joint resolution for “permanent disability, inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or a felony or conduct involving moral turpitude.”

Klobuchar intends to introduce the bill again. 

“In light of the serious misconduct detailed in the Inspector General’s report, Senator Klobuchar and several of her colleagues have urged Brett Blanton to resign and reimburse the government for the resources he misused,” a spokesperson for Klobuchar said by email. “Right now, the President has the power to remove the Architect of the Capitol from his post, and Senator Klobuchar plans to reintroduce legislation to give that power to Congress.”

But according to Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, lawmakers could be doing more. The Architect of the Capitol could be impeached, Schuman contends. The question is whether there is political will to do so.

“I don’t think they lack for remedies,” Schuman said. “I just think that all the remedies are awkward.”

Donald Sherman, senior vice president and chief counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, agreed with Schuman, but said without the support of the president or statutory guidance on the removal of the architect, any kind of congressional act to remove Blanton could create a legal quagmire.

“I think Congress will make it a lot easier if they revise the statute to implicitly address removal,” Sherman said. “But given the absence of that, the president is the only person that likely would have that authority.”

Zero tolerance

Even before the report was published, Blanton raised eyebrows because, unlike past appointees, he was not an architect by trade and had little experience with historic preservation and restoration projects, Mulshine said.

At his nomination hearing in December 2019, Blanton said he would not tolerate unethical acts.

“I will have a zero tolerance policy for harassment, discrimination or unethical behavior,” Blanton told senators. “We cannot expect to attract the nation’s top workforce without adapting and changing our culture.”

The AOC is responsible for the maintenance, operation, development and preservation of the Capitol complex. Blanton is the 12th person to occupy the role and would be the first to be removed, should Congress or the president decide to go that route.

President Joe Biden, through his spokesperson, has repeatedly declined to comment. 

Democrats responsible for overseeing the AOC came together in November to call for Blanton’s resignation, soon after the inspector general report was released. That group included Klobuchar and then-House Administration Chair Zoe Lofgren of California, along with the chairs of the Appropriations panels at the time, Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and retiring Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont. It also included the leaders of the Legislative Branch Appropriations subcommittees, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio (who is no longer in office after a failed bid for Senate) and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

But lawmakers have largely been quiet on the issue since, though appropriators slipped a passage into the 4,155-page spending bill, signed by Biden in late December, that expressly states “that none of the funds … may be used for a home-to-work vehicle for the Architect or a duly authorized designee.”

Legislative Branch appropriators did not respond to requests for comment on the language. Senate Rules Committee members either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment. 

Pennsylvania Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon was the lone House Administration member from the last Congress who would weigh in on Blanton this year, though she will not reprise her role on the committee in the 118th.

“I am extremely concerned about the OIG report findings that J. Brett Blanton … abused his authority and public trust, misused government property, and wasted taxpayer dollars,” Scanlon said. “I join my colleagues in calling for his resignation and for the full reimbursement of misused taxpayer dollars.”

Blanton, who has still not publicly offered a defense of the behavior alleged in the inspector general report, may find himself before the House panel in the coming months. Newly appointed House Administration Chair Bryan Steil would not comment on the allegations, but a Republican aide said he is reviewing them and could call Blanton to testify.

“He looks forward to conducting thorough oversight over the AOC, and all other legislative branch entities, including having agency heads testify before the committee this Congress,” the aide said.

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