The Architect of the Capitol abused his authority. Congress should call for his resignation.
Following a grueling midterm election season, President Biden has called for Republicans and Democrats to work together to advance America’s interests. During the lame duck session, one key opportunity for bipartisan action is for Democrats and Republicans to call for the resignation of the Trump appointed Architect of the Capitol, J. Brett Blanton, who was recently found to have abused his authority, wasted taxpayer funds and misused government property.
A scathing report issued by the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) Inspector General last month lays bare Blanton’s repeated flouting of the rules and disregard for American taxpayers, including repeated misuse of government vehicles, Blanton’s misrepresenting himself as a law enforcement officer, and instances of his wife offering Capitol tours in 2020 despite the restricted public access to the building due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then-President Trump nominated Blanton to serve a ten-year term as the Architect of the Capitol in December of 2019 and he was sworn into office in January of 2020. Unlike prior architects of the Capitol, Blanton has a background in civil engineering rather than architecture. Although the AOC, a federal agency within the legislative branch, receives relatively little public attention, it plays a significant role in managing the operations, maintenance, and security of the more than 570 acres comprising the Capitol grounds.
The Architect sits on the Capitol Police Board which oversees the U.S. Capitol Police, the department responsible for the security of members of Congress in the Capitol campus. The Architect also oversees the Chief Security Officer, who is responsible for “security enhancements of the U.S. Capitol Police and other facilities.” The office received renewed attention following the January 6th attack in the Capitol and the Capitol Police’s apparent lack of preparedness for that day. Given the rise in threats of political violence against elected officials and actual instances of such violence, including the recent attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, members of Congress have a strong bipartisan interest in ensuring that the Architect of the Capitol treats the position with the seriousness that it requires. And given rising distrust of government institutions, it is important that individuals heading federal agencies not waste precious taxpayer dollars or create the appearance that government works only for the powerful and well-connected.
The IG’s report details how Blanton and his family repeatedly misused government vehicles and wasted government funds. Blanton allowed his wife and daughter to drive his government vehicle without proper authorization, “used taxpayer dollars to fund an additional personal vehicle for his family,” and regularly used the vehicle for family weekend trips within Virginia “as well as [to] West Virginia, South Carolina and Florida.” His daughter even “referred to using the AOC’s fuel as ‘free gas.’” Blanton’s unauthorized use of government vehicles, including additional gas use and maintenance “amounted to a total of no less than $12,434.00 in unreported, taxable noncash fringe benefits to Blanton.”
The report also details an incident that took place in June of 2020 where Blanton impersonated law enforcement by using a government vehicle to “pursue a suspect involved in a hit and run that took place near his residence.” The report explains that “Blanton told a witness that he used the AOC vehicle with the emergency equipment activated to pursue the driver and detain him near his residence.” During the investigation into the hit and run, Blanton misrepresented himself as a law enforcement officer. According to the report, “the Fairfax County Police Officers, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney and defense counsel for the suspect all believed Blanton was an off-duty law enforcement officer throughout the entire court proceedings.”
Finally, the IG revealed that Blanton’s wife offered tours of the Capitol to what she described as “patriots” while it was closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In September of 2020, ahead of the 2020 election, she repeatedly posted photos online, calling “patriots” to come to the Capitol for private tours. Additionally, in December of 2021 she posted photos and comments of a private tour she gave to her swim team on social media. Given that the Capitol was still closed to the public, these instances “create[d] the appearance of impropriety and using a public position for private gain, which is a violation of AOC policy.”
These numerous serious violations, including evidence of crimes, demonstrate that Blanton is unfit to remain in office. Yet while accountability is necessary, the AOC OIG has little enforcement authority against Blanton. And despite the AOC OIG laying out various criminal violations, the F.B.I. declined to investigate and the United States Attorney’s Offices for Washington, D.C. and the Eastern District of Virginia declined to pursue criminal prosecution against him.
Following the report’s release, six Democrats who chair committees that oversee the AOC called for Blanton’s removal, explaining that, “Based on the overwhelming evidence of misconduct outlined in this report, Mr. Blanton must resign. He should be held accountable and reimburse the government.” Given Blanton’s clear violations of the public trust and the fact that the Architect serves both parties, congressional Republicans should join these calls for Blanton’s resignation. Because the AOC is a legislative branch agency, members of Congress are most invested in its functions and are best suited to respond. A strong bipartisan statement would demonstrate Congress’s interest in maintaining an ethical and accountable government.
However, if Democrats and Republicans fail to issue a bipartisan call for Blanton to resign, or if such calls do not result in Blanton’s resignation, President Biden has the authority to remove Blanton from his position, even without the approval of Congress. Given Blanton’s clear violation of the public trust, President Biden can and should use this option if Blanton does not resign.