By Spencer Hsu, Mary Beth Sheridan and Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 6, 2009 11:05 PM
In the days leading up to President Obama's inauguration, U.S. law enforcement agencies huddled regularly in an effort to minimize any possible security risk to an event that promised record crowds for the country's first black president. But one agenda item led authorities to a target close to home: the ranks of the U.S. Capitol Police.
An FBI investigation that included taped surveillance had placed two off-duty veteran Capitol Police officers in the company of individuals whose racial views and capacity for violence were under scrutiny. Although the recorded discussion did not center on Obama, federal law enforcement officials wanted to ensure that the officers were not on duty covering the Capitol, where the president took the oath of office, according to two sources involved in the matter.
The FBI alerted Capitol Police officials, but some federal officials grew concerned when no immediate action was taken, according to the sources. Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan voiced his frustration to then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, according to a senior federal official with knowledge of the incident. Chertoff, a former federal appeals court judge, told officials that if the Capitol Police did not act, he was prepared to take the issue to members of Congress overseeing the inauguration, the senior federal official said.
"Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. . . . But there are codes of conduct that are necessary for law enforcement and people in positions of public trust," said one senior federal official with knowledge of the episode. Common sense dictated, the official added, that the swearing-in of the nation's first black president was not a time to take chances.
The episode underscores the extraordinary precautions that law enforcement agencies took in the days before Obama's inauguration, including scouring their own ranks for possible security risks. Officials have offered few specifics about their work to protect the president, a coordinated effort directed by the Secret Service and overseen by Chertoff that drew on scores of federal, state and local agencies.
Officials have said that a principal concern was the possibility of hate crimes spurred by racial prejudice, leading them to focus investigative attention before the inauguration on any number of domestic groups with white supremacist views.
The Capitol Police suspended the two officers with pay on Jan. 19, the eve of the inauguration ceremony, pending an internal inquiry into an allegation that they associated with felons in violation of department policy, according to a senior law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the personnel matter. The official said the action was taken as soon as officials received the FBI's file and was not precipitated by Chertoff.
"We were well aware of what some of the accusations were -- some of which may have been repugnant, their associations with these guys -- but none of it was criminal or actionable from an administrative" perspective, the official said.
The Washington Post is withholding the names of the officers because the allegations have not yet been substantiated and no one at the Capitol Police department would speak on the record about the case.
Chertoff, who stepped down on Jan. 21, declined to discuss the events leading up to the suspensions, referring questions to the Secret Service, which also declined to comment.
Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance W. Gainer, a former Capitol Police chief who sits on a three-member board that oversees the agency, said he was prohibited by law from commenting on personnel actions.
However, Gainer added, "I categorically deny that either the police board or the police department has ever taken any action against anybody based on anything other than the facts of the case, and more specifically, that we were threatened -- that either we do something, or someone else would go public."
The suspended officers have no known criminal record, a senior law enforcement official said, and colleagues said the men are well regarded within the force. The officers rose to the attention of federal law enforcement partly because of their long association with a southern Maryland motorcycle club, the Tribes. The group is a rough-hewn band of bike enthusiasts founded more than 30 years ago by corrections officers and other law enforcement officials.
The club came under law enforcement scrutiny earlier this decade, and in January 2004, a former member, John Beal, pleaded guilty to gun and drug charges after an undercover investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Capitol Police are barred from associating with felons, a policy shared by other law enforcement agencies.
Contacted by The Post, one of the officers said department policy barred him from speaking, even in his own defense.
"I have no comment, sir," the officer said. "I'm not allowed to talk to the press."
Doug Barber, a friend of both men, said the officers believe they have done nothing wrong. "As far as they're concerned, they haven't done anything wrong, and their careers and their families are at stake; that's how they feed their family," Barber said. "They're loyal to their country, their family and their job."
Tribes is not regarded as an "outlaw" club, said Maryland State Police Detective Jon Burroughs, president of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Gang Investigators Network. But the group occasionally attracts law enforcement interest, as it did after two violent incidents in 2002, because of its interactions with other biker clubs, such as the Hells Angels and the Pagans.
Beal left the Tribes to start a Calvert County branch of the Hells Angels, and the various biker clubs occasionally socialize together, according to members.
The inspector general for the Capitol Police is investigating the officers and will issue a recommendation to the chief, who will bring the matter to the board, which includes Gainer, House Sergeant-at-Arms Wilson "Bill" Livingood and Acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers.
Terry L. Katz, a longtime investigator of motorcycle gangs for the Maryland State Police, said that in the end, "the question would be whether you can be a biker by night and a cop by day."