Between all the balloon headlines and the discourse about Rihanna’s Super Bowl performance last week, you might easily have missed that President Biden fired the head of a federal agency—the Architect of the Capitol, Brett Blanton—over some pretty wild alleged misdeeds.
Blanton was the one remaining member of the Capitol Police Board who had been serving during the insurrection; the other two had already since departed the board. (The Capitol Police Board oversees and supports the Capitol police.) A Senate report found that the board members’ lack of familiarity with emergency procedures slowed down the process of getting help from the National Guard on Jan. 6 as things were getting out of control at the Capitol.
But that wasn’t the half of it for Blanton, apparently—at least, according to a scathing Office of Inspector General report about him that was released late last year, and a heated committee hearing that followed earlier this month.
In case you missed the whole saga, we’re here to catch you up:
What does the architect of the Capitol do, anyway?
As architect of the Capitol, Blanton oversaw the federal agency of the same name, which is responsible for maintaining the U.S. Capitol complex. That includes the House and Senate congressional office buildings, Library of Congress, U.S. Supreme Court building, and more—all told, around 570 acres of ground throughout Washington, D.C. Blanton oversaw all of the Capitol’s maintenance and operations, from changing lightbulbs to landscaping and managing official Capitol visits.
The job is appointed by the president and holds a 10-year term.
What was he accused of doing wrong?
The OIG report found that Blanton misused his government-issued car by letting his wife and daughter drive it and by using it for personal weekend trips, including to a craft brewery and out-of-state vacations. Blanton’s work car racked up about 29,000 miles, the report said, which is nearly 19,000 more miles than what’s allowed for travel strictly between home and work. “Evaluation of the additional mileage added to the AOC vehicles, wear and tear, and extra maintenance in accordance with Internal Revenue Service (IRS) policies for 2020 and 2021 amounted to a total of no less than $12,434.00 in unreported, taxable noncash fringe benefits to Blanton,” the report said.
The report also said that Blanton used a government-issued car, equipped with lights and sirens, to impersonate a police officer after his daughter’s boyfriend’s car was struck in a hit-and-run. He also drove the car to South Carolina and Florida when he was technically on annual leave, the OIG report said—and to top it off, multiple complaints were filed against Blanton’s car for reckless driving.
Wow. Anything else?
While the Capitol was closed due to COVID, Blanton’s wife posted on social media appearing to invite people in for tours. “This is happening!!!” she wrote on Sept. 30, 2020, alongside a photo of the two of them in front of the Capitol building. “All PATRIOTS welcome…PM Me.” She captioned another photo from the same day with: “Contact me for a private tour. All PATRIOTS accepted!”
Though posting to social media isn’t technically in violation of U.S. code, offering private tours of the Capitol creates “the appearance of impropriety and using a public position for private gain, which is a violation of AOC policy,” the OIG report said.
Blanton also admitted to giving tours while the Capitol was closed—but only to lawmakers who requested one. When asked about those photos his wife posted, he said he did give a tour of the “exterior of the Capitol,” which was technically not closed during the pandemic. “Did you take them inside?” asked Republican Rep. Greg Murphy. “I don’t remember specifically … it was a surprise to me,” responded Blanton.
So what did he do on Jan. 6?
As architect of the Capitol, Blanton is required to physically oversee the Capitol grounds. But Blanton did not report to work at any time on Jan. 6, 2021. According to the OIG report, Blanton confirmed last year that neither he nor any of his employees “engaged in conversation with the U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) regarding a request for an emergency declaration or interest seeking National Guard support in advance of the breach of the U.S. Capitol.”
“I am outraged that you would be in a comfortable place, sir, while the rest of us were thinking about dying that day and how we were going to come out alive,” Rep. Norma Torres said during the House hearing on Feb. 9. Torres described how the police officer guarding the area of the House gallery where she huddled on the floor with other lawmakers did not have a key to lock the door.
“Do you know that?” asked Torres. Blanton responded, “That’s news to me. “
What did Blanton have to say about all this?
In his testimony to lawmakers on Feb. 9, Blanton denied any wrongdoing. “I wholeheartedly reject any assertion that I engaged in unethical behavior during my service to this country,” he said in his opening statement.
Blanton said he allowed his wife and daughter to drive his government-issued car, but only while he accompanied them as a passenger. When asked if he ever let them drive when he wasn’t present, he demurred. “My recollection is no. But … I can’t say 100 percent definitively because that may have occurred or it may not have occurred.”
When asked about his absence on Jan. 6, Blanton said he was using his government-issued car as a “mobile command center” and that he wouldn’t have been able to get into Capitol grounds that day due to police barricades and security. Republican Rep. Stephanie Bice wasn’t buying that. “That fact that you would say, ‘I wasn’t going to be able to get in’—I cannot fathom that,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
How was this received on Capitol Hill?
In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats came together to call for Blanton’s firing. A group of prominent Democrats released a statement late last year that said, “Based on the overwhelming evidence of misconduct outlined in this report, Mr. Blanton must resign. He should be held accountable and reimburse the government,” according to The Hill.
Republican leaders joined in, with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy saying on Monday that Blanton “no longer has my confidence to continue his job,” and called on Biden to fire him immediately. The official House GOP Twitter account agreed, tweeting, “#FireBlanton.”
That same day, Biden officially fired Blanton. Democratic Rep. Joe Morelle, also the ranking member on the House Administration committee, immediately put out a statement applauding Biden’s decision. “After being given the opportunity to respond to numerous allegations of legal, ethical, and administrative violations, and failing to directly respond, the President has removed Mr. Brett Blanton from his position—a decision I firmly stand behind.”
Will Blanton face any other repercussions?
The OIG has sent its investigation’s findings to Virginia law enforcement officials, congressional oversight committees and the Internal Revenue Service for review. It’s not yet clear if they’ll pursue their own investigations or charges against Blanton.
Who is going to oversee the Capitol grounds now?
The process of picking a replacement has begun, but it’s not expected to be easy. Under former President Trump, it took a little over a year to fill the role. Normally, the architect of the Capitol’s deputy would be promoted to take on the job, but under Blanton there was no deputy. Instead, Chere Rexroat, chief engineer at the office, will assume the interim role.