A key House Republican has initiated a review of whether U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer overstepped his authority and violated federal law by tapping an emergency fund for $10 million to set up security checkpoints around Capitol Hill.
Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that approves the Capitol Police budget, requested an opinion from U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker in a letter Thursday.
In an interview, Kingston criticized Gainer for not consulting with oversight committees, and he cited the need for Congress to preserve public access to its members. Kingston said the chief's actions appeared to reflect political calculations and a desire to expand police power and jurisdiction without debate. "The use of that money for barricades on the street was not cleared with our committee," Kingston said.
He noted that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has complained about the effect of unannounced roadblocks on traffic and D.C. police and ambulance services.
"To the degree we think the police chief has been too aggressive, too quick to spend money to build the department and often works his Senate contacts to justify it more on politics and relationships than substance, it is a great concern," said Kingston, 49, a six-term member of the House and a fiscal conservative.
House officials say police have spent $10.6 million on overtime and equipment for the checkpoints -- about $100,000 a day -- drawing from an emergency fund that is supposed to be reserved for other purposes. Kingston asked Walker's Government Accountability Office to determine whether police violated the law that prohibits spending in excess of appropriations.
Senate leaders rushed to defend Gainer, whose agency has been caught in the middle of battles between House and Senate appropriators over control of congressional agencies. Kingston's displeasure reflects how the chief's bold, take-charge style has antagonized some on Capitol Hill during his two-year tenure.
Informed of Kingston's remarks and request for a legal review, Gainer responded, "Wow!"
Gainer said he acted with the full support of the Capitol Police Board, a panel composed of the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms and the architect of the capitol. He said that there may be "technical" concerns about tapping the emergency fund but that he was in full compliance with the law. He suggested that the dispute was between lawmakers.
Gainer said he hoped a "good dialogue will assuage [Kingston's] concerns."
"I'll continue to work through those age-old differences" between members of Congress who oversee agencies and those who fund them, Gainer said. "Everybody's trying to do the right thing up here, and it is very technical."
Senate Sergeant-at-Arms William H. Pickle said, "The chief was following directives by the U.S. Capitol Police Board, and he was not acting on his own accord."
Senate Republican and Democratic leaders and Appropriations Committee leaders "all endorse protecting the institution and are supportive of the security procedures in place," Pickle said.
At issue are 14 traffic checkpoints reinstated Tuesday on an intermittent basis for the foreseeable future. The checkpoints were set up Aug. 4 after the Department of Homeland Security announced a heightened terrorist threat level for financial centers in Washington, New York and New Jersey. They were dismantled Nov. 10 when the threat level was reduced.
Capitol security officials say that the timing was a coincidence and that the actions were driven by their own intelligence and planning.
Kingston added his voice to calls by District leaders for a debate over how much security is needed in Washington and how it should be coordinated.
Kingston said Congress must decide how much risk members are willing to accept. He said the study used to justify the checkpoints examined the threat posed by truck bombs, which has been apparent at least since the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. He said the threat is faced not just by Congress but also by government and private facilities throughout Washington.
In a related move, Congress approved language in a catchall federal spending measure yesterday directing Gainer to obtain approval before taking long-term security measures and to report spending quarterly and by line item.
"This place already looks like Fort Capitol," Kingston said. "You look up and see guards with M-16 rifles. You walk around the corner, and you don't know who you are going to bump into next, a school group or a line of police officers. . . . Nine-eleven and security has become a new way to spend money, and we need to be careful."