2 Capitol Police officers suspended before inauguration
WASHINGTON - In the days leading up to President Obama's inauguration, US law enforcement agencies huddled regularly in an effort to minimize any possible security risk to an event that promised record crowds for the country's first black president. But one issue of concern led authorities to a target close to home: the ranks of the US Capitol Police.
An FBI investigation that included taped surveillance had placed two off-duty veteran Capitol Police officers in the company of individuals whose racial views and capacity for violence were under scrutiny.
Although the recorded discussion did not center on Obama, federal law enforcement officials wanted to ensure that the officers were not on duty covering the Capitol when the oath was taken, according to two sources involved in the matter.
The FBI alerted Capitol Police officials, but some federal officials grew concerned when no immediate action was taken, according to the sources. Mark Sullivan, Secret Service director, voiced his frustration to then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, according to a senior federal official with knowledge of the incident.
Chertoff told officials that if the Capitol Police did not act, he was prepared to take the issue to members of Congress overseeing the inauguration, the senior federal official said.
"Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. . . . But there are codes of conduct that are necessary for law enforcement and people in positions of public trust," said one senior federal official with knowledge of the episode. Common sense dictated that the swearing-in of the nation's first black president was not a time to take chances, the official added.
The matter underscores the extraordinary precautions that law enforcement agencies took before Obama's inauguration, including scouring their own ranks for possible security risks. Officials have offered few specifics about their work to protect the president, a coordinated effort directed by the Secret Service and overseen by Chertoff that drew on scores of federal, state, and local agencies.
Officials have said that a principal concern was the possibility of hate crimes spurred by racial prejudice, leading them to focus investigative attention before the inauguration on any number of domestic groups with white supremacist views.
The Capitol Police suspended the two officers with pay on Jan. 19, the eve of the inauguration ceremony, pending an internal inquiry into an allegation that they associated with felons in violation of department policy, according to a senior law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the personnel matter.
The official said the action was taken as soon as officials received the FBI's file and was not precipitated by Chertoff. "We were well aware of what some of the accusations were - some of which may have been repugnant, their associations with these guys - but none of it was criminal or actionable from an administrative" perspective, the official said.
No one at the Capitol Police Department would speak on the record.
Chertoff, who stepped down Jan. 21, declined to discuss the events leading up to the suspensions, referring questions to the Secret Service, which also declined to comment.
Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer, a former Capitol Police chief who sits on a three-member board that oversees the agency, said he was prohibited by law from commenting on personnel actions. However, Gainer denied that the Capitol Police has ever taken action because of pressure from someone. The suspended officers have no known criminal record, a senior law enforcement official said, and colleagues said the men are well-regarded within the force.
The officers rose to the attention of federal law enforcement partly because of their long association with a southern Maryland motorcycle club, the Tribes. The club was founded more than 30 years ago by correctional officers and other law enforcement officials.
The club came under law enforcement scrutiny earlier this decade and in January 2004, a former member, John Beal, pleaded guilty to gun and drug charges after an undercover investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Capitol Police are barred from associating with felons, a policy shared by other law enforcement agencies.
Contacted by The Post, one of the officers said department policy barred him from speaking, even in his own defense. "I'm not allowed to talk to the press," the officer said.
Doug Barber, a friend of both men, said the officers believe they have done nothing wrong. "They're loyal to their country, their family and their job," he said.
The inspector general for the Capitol Police is investigating the officers and will issue a recommendation to the chief.