Watchdog report scrutinizes GOP lawmaker’s claim that he was targeted by Capitol Police

Watchdog report scrutinizes GOP lawmaker’s claim that he was targeted by Capitol Police

Rep. Troy Nehls prompted an inspector general investigation after he accused Capitol Police of trying to “destroy” him over his comments on the Jan. 6 attack. The report, exclusively reviewed by POLITICO, gives a very different perspective on events than what Nehls described.

And it points to the complexities Capitol Police face as they work to protect lawmakers without overstepping.

Nehls said at the time that Capitol Police had improperly entered his office, took a photo of a whiteboard and then came by later to question his team about it. The Texas Republican said he was being targeted due to his views that Capitol Police had “murdered” Ashli Babbitt, a woman who entered the Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack and was killed there by an officer.

The new inspector general report, which POLITICO is detailing here for the first time, gives a much tamer characterization of events than Nehls provided. After scrutinizing the matter, the inspector general recommended that the department update procedures on balancing security interests with congressional offices’ confidential work. But in contrast to Nehls’ assessment of events, the inspector general report didn’t suggest officers engaged in malicious surveillance or attempted character assassination.

The episode occurred last November. According to Nehls, an officer entered his office on Nov. 20, 2021, and took a photo of a whiteboard where his team had jotted notes about legislation on body armor. The next Monday, officers in civilian clothing visited Nehls’ office and questioned a staffer about the writings, he said.

“Capitol Police leadership have put a target on my back, but my work in exposing the security failures on January 6th, the death of Ms. Babbitt, and the sham investigation into the events of January 6th will not be deterred,” Nehls said in a February statement about the incident.

In the inspector general report, Capitol Police instead detailed an officer checking in on an office while conducting a routine weekend patrol and then reporting something “concerning” he saw in the office to his superiors.

The officer was doing routine patrol work of the Longworth House Office Building on Nov. 20 when he saw that the door to Nehls’ office was open, which wasn’t normal, according to the report. So he loudly announced himself a few times, and, hearing no response, walked into the office to see if everything was OK. Nobody was there. But a whiteboard “contained writings about body armor, China, and the Rayburn and Longworth Buildings,” the report said.

He told the inspector general that he took a photo of the whiteboard “‘to preserve the evidence’ since he thought the language was ‘concerning.’” He said that in prior training at a federal law enforcement academy, he’d learned to take photos of anything suspicious if possible. After leaving Nehls’ office and locking the door, he showed the photo to his supervisor and another sergeant. They agreed it was “a little off.”

The officer also asked a coworker, a private, if he should file a particular type of report to detail what happened, and the private said yes. Later that night, a Capitol Police supervisor received a report of the incident and a photo of the whiteboard, passed along through the private. The next day, the supervisor sent it to three sergeants in the Intelligence Operations Section, one of whom directed an officer in that specific department on Nov. 22 to follow up “to determine if it warranted an investigation.”

Since that officer’s work was “counter-surveillance,” part of his job was to dress in casual garb, which that day was blue jeans and a hoodie — not a disguise to hoodwink Nehls’ team, as the congressman had publicly speculated. He had another assignment that morning, as well: to give a tour of the House side of the Capitol building to two other privates in the Intelligence Operations Section, who also dressed in civilian clothes.

The three officers went to Nehls’ office, where the lead officer knocked on the door, introduced himself to the legislative assistant who answered and said he was following up on the report from two days prior. The staffer “explained to him that Congressman Nehls was working on body armor legislation and had written the map to direct an intern to the House ice machine.” The officer concluded that nobody needed to investigate further, which he relayed to his supervisor. The supervisor told him he didn’t need to document the follow-up in the department’s record management system.

The inspector general’s office also interviewed the Nehls staffer who spoke with the officers (and who has since taken a different job), and corroborated the officer’s basic account of the office visit.

The staffer added that he thought it was “unusual” that they showed up without an appointment, and that he thought they were “‘dressed weird’ like construction workers.” The officers were respectful and professional, he added, and the conversation took one minute.

And while some sergeants found the whiteboards’ contents notable, at least one sergeant thought the officer who entered Nehls’ office handled the situation poorly. This sergeant called the officer’s whiteboard concerns “all over the place and not pertinent.” That sergeant also said this was “the first time he had heard of an officer photographing a whiteboard in a Congressperson’s office,” and that the department should give more directions on when it was appropriate to take photos at the Capitol. He also called ensuring all office doors were closed and locked after hours “an awkward duty,” and officers were not trained on what to do if they enter an office and see something suspicious.

Additionally, the sergeant told the inspector general that Capitol Police’s mission is to protect members of Congress, not to investigate them. He didn’t understand what the officer “was thinking when he took the photograph of the whiteboard.”

The inspector general concluded that the officer who took the photo should have filled out a different type of report for his supervisors, and that the department needed to update procedures on finding open office doors. Department lawyers should ensure the department “strikes the proper balance of protecting congressional representatives and their staff from physical outside threats while simultaneously protecting their legislative proposals and work product from possibly inappropriate photography, scrutiny, and questioning by USCP employees.”

The report also recommended training on what officers should do when entering unlocked offices, which forms to fill out, what terms to use on those forms and how to properly use their work phones.

The report made clear that it did not express an opinion on the police department’s programs. But it didn’t include any statements suggesting Nehls was targeted maliciously — contra the congressman’s description of events.

In a statement sent to POLITICO, the Capitol Police executive team pushed back on Nehls’ claims regarding the episode.

“The U.S. Representative was never under criminal investigation. His staff was never under criminal investigation. The Inspector General’s report supports these conclusions,” the statement reads. “Spreading unfounded conspiracy theories in the press undermines the work our brave men and women do every day to protect the Members of Congress, the Capitol Complex, and the legislative process.”

A spokesperson for Nehls said his team has received the report and is reviewing it. “We will issue a statement after we do our due diligence,” the spokesperson said.

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Author: By Betsy Woodruff Swan