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Blanton in the hot seat: Architect of the Capitol testifies for first time since bombshell report

Lawmakers press embattled architect on alleged misdeeds

Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton testifies Thursday during a hearing of the House Administration Committee. Lawmakers were quick to address the “elephant in the room.”
Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton testifies Thursday during a hearing of the House Administration Committee. Lawmakers were quick to address the “elephant in the room.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton oscillated between dodging and outright denial Thursday as lawmakers peppered him with questions about allegations of unethical behavior and abuse of his office.

Thursday’s House Administration hearing was Blanton’s first appearance before a congressional panel since a damning inspector general report was released in October. That report found Blanton had misrepresented himself as a law enforcement officer, repeatedly misused his government-issued vehicle and led, along with his wife, prohibited private Capitol tours during COVID-19 lockdown. The misuse of the vehicle cost taxpayers nearly $14,000, the report stated.

Chairman Bryan Steil, R-Wis., characterized the report’s findings as “highly concerning” and began the hearing by announcing his plans to address “the elephant in the room.”

But Blanton pushed back. “I am frustrated by the current distraction created by the inspector general’s report. … I wholeheartedly reject any assertion that I engaged in unethical behavior during my service to this country,” said the Capitol architect, who was appointed to a 10-year term by President Donald Trump in 2019.

“The report is filled with errors, omissions, mischaracterizations, misstatements and conclusory statements lacking evidence,” Blanton said, adding that he hadn’t had the chance to read the 800-page report in its entirety and instead had consumed only the 10-page summary.

Members of the committee made it clear they weren’t convinced. After the hearing, ranking member Joseph D. Morelle of New York and Rep. Norma J. Torres of California, the top Democrat on the panel’s Oversight Subcommittee, each called for Blanton’s immediate resignation.

“He provided no meaningful or credible defense. Instead, he chose to be vague and evasive, and attempted to place blame on others,” Morelle said in a statement. “Based on the conduct alleged by the Inspector General and today’s testimony, I am no longer confident in Mr. Blanton’s ability to effectively perform the duties of his office. He must resign immediately.”  

It’s the second time lawmakers have called on Blanton to step down.

After the release of the October report, a group of lawmakers similarly urged him to resign. Those calls went unanswered and, until Thursday, Blanton never publicly addressed the scandal.

Questions have swirled about Congress’ authority to remove or discipline Blanton, a legislative branch employee who is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Some experts contend Congress could impeach Blanton, but there’s no precedent for that.

Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar has twice introduced legislation to clarify Congress’ ability to discipline or remove an AOC either by impeachment or a joint resolution of Congress in the event of “permanent disability, inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or a felony or conduct involving moral turpitude,” according to the bill text

Klobuchar’s first measure went nowhere after she introduced it in late December, with only a few weeks before the end of the 117th Congress. She reintroduced it on Jan. 26 with Rules ranking member Deb Fischer, R-Neb., but the bill remains in committee.

‘You bring a lot of anxiety to me’

Steil would not indicate after the meeting whether he thought Blanton should be disciplined or removed, or whether he would support legislation, like Klobuchar’s, to codify a procedure for Congress to remove an acting AOC. The decision to remove Blanton is ultimately President Joe Biden’s, Steil said, and he has not spoken to the president on the matter.

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

“We’re going to continue asking questions,” Steil said after the hearing. “Ultimately, we need accountability for the American people. And so this is just step one of what’s going to be a really robust oversight process here at this committee.”

At the hearing, Blanton faced a deluge of questions from members, some of whom expressed anger and wondered about his fitness for the job. The architect has a wide-ranging role and is responsible for overseeing the maintenance, operation, development and preservation of the Capitol complex. 

“You bring a lot of anxiety to me,” Torres told Blanton. “Your inability to do your job brings a lot of anxiety to me.”

Several members zeroed in on Blanton’s use of his government-issued vehicle, which was intended for work-to-home use. According to the OIG report, he allowed his wife and daughter to drive the vehicle and took it on road trips as far as South Carolina and Florida.

Blanton copped to allowing his wife and daughter to drive the car while he was a passenger. Asked specifically whether he ever let them take the wheel when he wasn’t present, Blanton said, “My recollection is no. But … I can’t say 100 percent definitively because that may have occurred or it may not have occurred.”

Legislative Branch appropriators ended funding for a home-to-work vehicle for the architect for the current fiscal year, slipping a line into the 4,155-page spending bill that became law in December.

Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, a Republican freshman and retired detective with the New York Police Department, took Blanton to task for allegedly identifying himself as a law enforcement officer after a driver hit a car belonging to Blanton’s daughter’s boyfriend.

Blanton allegedly pursued the driver to his home in his government-issued vehicle and briefly detained him, according to the report. Police who responded to the scene identified Blanton as law enforcement, although on Thursday he insisted that was an error on their part and not because of anything he told them.

Blanton sits on the Capitol Police Board but is not a law enforcement officer. He denied ever having detained the driver who hit the car and instead claimed he waited outside his house while he dialed 911.

Despite his questionable use of the SUV, Blanton argued it was vital for an AOC’s “ability to communicate and quickly and safely return to campus at any time,” though he couldn’t recall a time he’d had to use the vehicle to quickly return, including during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Blanton was working remotely the day of the attack and said he was concerned he wouldn’t have been able to gain access to the Capitol complex “because of the security situation.” He wasn’t there that day because the Capitol Police Board hadn’t received any “actionable intelligence” that there could be a disturbance, Blanton told the panel. (Steil, during his closing arguments, indicated he would request records to investigate that claim.)

Although he wasn’t physically present at the Capitol that day, he used his government-issued vehicle as a “mobile command center,” which he offered as an example of the importance of Congress appropriating such a vehicle.

“But you didn’t come — because you said you couldn’t get on the campus, which I find offensive, sir,” said Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla. “The fact that you would say, ‘I wasn’t going to be able to get in’ — I cannot fathom that. It doesn’t make any sense.”

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