Anger over health-care reform spurs rise in threats against Congress members

By Sari Horwitz and Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 9, 2010; A03

Anger over the health-care overhaul has led to a nearly threefold increase in recent months in the number of serious threats against members of Congress, federal law enforcement officials said.

The lawmakers reported 42 threats in the first three months of this year, compared with 15 in the last three months of 2009, said Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance W. Gainer, who had information about threats involving both chambers.

"The incidents ranged from very vulgar to serious threats, including death threats," Gainer said. "The ability to carry them out is another question and part of an investigation to determine what, if any, appropriate steps to take."

Nearly all of the recent threats appear to come from opponents of the health-care overhaul, said Gainer, who also served four years as chief of the U.S. Capitol Police. And, he said, there have been "significantly more" threats against House members than against senators.

The threats, which have led to at least three arrests, have not abated since President Obama signed the measure into law March 23. The Capitol Police have contacted the FBI about such threats even more often since the law was signed, said Lindsay Godwin, an FBI spokeswoman.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) became the best-known of the recently targeted lawmakers Wednesday, when authorities accused a man in San Francisco of making dozens of threatening calls to her home and her husband's office.

In response to the threats, Capitol officials have been working to ensure that the 454 Senate offices across the country are secure. Some of the offices, a quarter of which are in federal buildings, are receiving additional equipment to help with the screening of mail. In other instances, law enforcement officials are recommending new locks and surveillance cameras.

A few members have reacted to the threats by lowering their public profiles. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) canceled an event at a Youngstown community health center because he received a threatening letter, his spokeswoman told a local television station.

But most lawmakers haven't altered their routines, devoting their two-week spring recess to the typical district meetings, town halls and campaign events.

A day before Gregory L. Giusti was charged with threatening Pelosi, Charles A. Wilson was arrested near Yakima, Wash., and charged with "leaving expletive laden threatening messages" on multiple occasions at the office of Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), including a recorded message that said, "I want to kill you."

On March 29, a Philadelphia man was charged with threatening in a YouTube video to kill Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and his family. Prosecutors say the suspect, Norman Leboon, has multiple personalities and is not competent to stand trial.

Some lawmakers say the real change in recent weeks has been that members aren't keeping such incidents private anymore. "Normally, we don't give publicity to this," said Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House committee that oversees the Capitol Police.

The threats have come at home and at work, online, on the phone and in person.

This week, Rep. Stephen I. Cohen (D-Tenn.) received hostile e-mails to his Cohen for Congress campaign Web site, an incident that was reported to the Capitol Police and the FBI office in Memphis. One e-mail said, "If our tea parties had hoods, we would burn your [expletive] on a cross on the White House front lawn," according to Cohen's chief of staff.

A propane gas line was cut in March at the Charlottesville home of Rep. Tom Perriello's (D-Va.) brother after a self-identified "tea party" activist posted the address on the Internet and said it was the congressman's house.

A brick was thrown through the window of the Niagara Falls district office of Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) , and someone left her a voice mail suggesting that the children of health-reform supporters would be targeted by snipers.

Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.), the leader of a bloc of antiabortion Democrats who eventually cut a deal with the Obama administration and voted for the bill, received a fax with a drawing of a noose and an anonymous voice mail saying: "You're dead. We know where you live. We'll get you."

Despite the threats, Murray and Slaughter haven't changed their public schedules, according to spokesmen, and Perriello hasn't slowed down since the vandalism at his brother's house.

"It hasn't really changed much about how we do business here in the office," said Perriello spokeswoman Jessica Barba.

She said Perriello was maintaining a "very aggressive public events schedule" with more than a dozen appearances in the past week and no security staff in tow.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said that he had received threats before and during the health-care debate but that he's "handled them quietly."

"There's simply more anger out there about the direction of our country," Alexander said. "I see it and feel it in the public meetings I go to. But I'm going to the same places and doing the same things I always have."

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