Exclusive: Internal probe faults Capitol Police for photographing congressman's private work

Inspector general says officer exercised "questionable judgment" taking photo and recommends department institute better policies, training.

Updated: June 2, 2022 - 11:33pm

An internal investigation has confirmed Capitol Police entered Texas Republican Rep. Troy Nehls' office and photographed a whiteboard containing his sensitive legislative plans, concluding the officer who took the picture exercised "questionable judgment" and the department lacked policies and training to avoid an unnecessary intrusion on lawmakers' constitutionally protected work.

The episode from last November exposed the need for Capitol Police to strike a "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," the department's inspector general wrote in a lengthy report reviewed by Just the News.

Nehls told Just the News on Thursday night he was "a little disappointed" the internal probe did not resolve a key factual question about the officer's claim of why he entered the congressman's office over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

He said the failure to resolve that key question and the surfacing of other unusual facts turned up during the internal probe only heightened his fears that Capitol Police targeted him for investigation for political reasons related to his criticism of the Democrat-led Jan. 6 committee investigation.

"I personally believe that Nancy Pelosi has weaponized the U.S. Capitol Police as her own investigations unit," Nehls said in an interview with the "Just the News, Not Noise" television show. "She goes after anybody that has dissenting point of views. I obviously have been a very vocal critic of the January 6th committee and the events of January 6."

The Capitol Police provided a statement to Just the News that did not address the IG's criticisms of the officer or the department but strongly insisted Nehls was never under criminal investigation and that any suggestion to the contrary only undermined the police force.

"In February, a U.S. Representative claimed that we illegally investigated and spied on him and his staff," the department told Just the News. "The allegations were made after one of our vigilant officers noticed the door to the Congressman's office suite had been left open during the Thanksgiving weekend."

"The U.S. Representative was never under criminal investigation. His staff was never under criminal investigation," the department said, adding that "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."

The inspector general found plenty to question about the incident, noting the officer was "inexplicably" instructed to fill out the wrong type of report after searching Nehls' office and that efforts were made to keep the episode out of official records. 

"The Department did not have an adequately detailed and updated SOP in place for patrol officers inside the Capitol Building, which created ambiguity and a lack of accountability," the IG found.

"Deficiencies included (a) outdated or vague guidance, (b) failure to follow established procedures in completion of the proper notification paperwork ...  (c) insufficient training by the Training Services Bureau on the procedures to follow when entering an unoccupied congressional office," according to the review.

The report also confirmed Nehls' claim that members of the Capitol Police intelligence unit, appearing in plain clothes, went back to the office and interviewed staff before determining "nothing suspicious had occurred and no further investigation was warranted."

The internal watchdog noted that "none of the large number" of supervisors who reviewed the officer's handling of the incident "remedied this situation or even discussed it with him, which demonstrated a general lack of familiarity with the proper procedures and forms involved when encountering an unlocked congressional interior door."

Nehls and his office staff have insisted the officer's description of how and why he entered the office on Nov. 20 seemed dubious.

The officer reported that during a routine patrol he found the door to Nehls' office was wide open and "nothing was being used to prop the door open." The officer said he entered to ensure there was no danger, then discovered the writings on the white board and photographed them because he considered them suspicious.

But the inspector general reviewed the doors to Nehls' office and could not replicate keeping any of the congressman's office doors open without having them propped by an item.

"All three doors only opened inward into the office suite and would close automatically when released," the IG noted. "All three doors also automatically locked when closed during the examination.

"The only method of keeping one of these doors open on its own would be to prop it open with an object or to set the lock bolt in place when the door was open, in which case the door would only partially close due to the lock bolt preventing the door from fully closing."

The internal probe determined it was the only time the officer had ever used his department-issued smart phone to take a picture for investigative purposes, and it interviewed a supervisory sergeant who explained the department "does not investigate Members of Congress so he does not understand what" the officer "was thinking when he took the photograph of the whiteboard."

The officer "exercised questionable judgment in concluding it was his duty or mission to read and photograph the written product of a congressman or the congressman's staff contained on a whiteboard in a private congressional office," the inspector general concluded.

"His actions are mitigated by the fact that in its review, OIG found no evidence of where this type of scenario was discussed or relevant guidance was provided by the Department," the report added.

Nehls told Just the News he hoped a new Congress next year could find consensus to ensure Capitol Police have better policies and procedures to protect the privacy and work of lawmakers.

"I think that it is very incumbent upon whoever the Speaker of the House, the Sergeant at Arms are in the next Congress that we protect the limited amount of integrity that that institution has, and that is making sure that members can feel safe and secure in their offices," he said

"This, Democrats and Republicans alike should support the idea of saying this should never happen to anybody,” Nehls added. "You cannot go in and start taking pictures of legislative materials or things that you find suspicious."

Congressional correspondent Nicholas Ballasy contributed to this article.

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