US President fires Capitol appointee amid January 6 criticism

J Brett Blanton, Architect of the Capitol, has been accused of abusing his authority and misusing government property.

Brett Blanton speaking
J Brett Blanton has faced outrage for his actions during the Capitol attack on January 6, 2021 [File: Jim Lo Scalzo/Reuters]

United States President Joe Biden has fired the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), a figure responsible for the upkeep and operation of the buildings that house Congress and other key government offices, amid criticism that he abused his position.

J Brett Blanton, a civil engineer appointed to the role under former President Donald Trump, faced accusations of “administrative, ethical and policy violations”, as well as bipartisan condemnation for his actions during the Capitol attack on January 6, 2021.

His termination on Monday came shortly after Wisconsin Republican Bryan Steil, the chair of the administration committee in the House of Representatives, issued a call for Blanton to “immediately resign”.

The top Republican in the House, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, likewise said on Monday that either Blanton should leave office “or President Biden should remove him immediately”.

“The Architect of the Capitol, Brett Blanton, no longer has my confidence to continue in his job,” McCarthy wrote on Twitter on Monday.

The outcry comes after Blanton faced the House Administration Committee on Thursday, revealing that he chose to stay away from the Capitol after learning that supporters of then-President Trump had stormed the building, forcing legislators to flee.

“For every employee that works in this campus, whether they are maintenance people or members of Congress, that was a very difficult day. Very, very difficult day. A deadly day,” California Representative Norma Torres, a Democrat, told Blanton at the hearing.

Torres recalled how, on January 6, 2021, she and some of her colleagues were “stranded” on a balcony, hiding facedown while the only police officer nearby struggled to close a nearby door. The officer, she said, was not equipped with the proper keys.

“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 that day. Outrageous that you were not here,” Torres said.

Blanton had explained that he did not come to the Capitol that day because he had planned to “telework” instead as part of his office’s COVID-19 policies.

The committee hearing follows a report of ethics violations against Blanton from the Office of the Inspector General. The report, published last year, details how Blanton allegedly “abused his authority, misused government property and wasted taxpayer money”.

The report begins by explaining that, in 2021, the Office of the Inspector General received “a hotline complaint from a private citizen” that a Black Ford Explorer belonging to the government was “swerving out of the garage” at a Virginia Walmart store “at a high rate of speed”, in a manner described as “extremely reckless”.

Blanton’s adult daughter, Reilly Blanton, was identified as the driver of the vehicle. The report proceeds to explain that there is “overwhelming evidence” that Blanton’s family “continually misused” vehicles intended for government use.

It says that the family logged approximately 47,139km (29,291 miles) on the vehicles — triple the estimate for official use — for travel, including “weekend trips to a craft brewery, out-of-town trips and general family use”. Reilly Blanton, the report claims, also used the government office’s resources for “free gas”.

The report also outlines alleged ethics violations, including that Blanton gave “misleading and false information” to the Office of the Inspector General “on multiple occasions”.

It details another instance where Blanton’s wife, Michelle Blanton, offered Capitol tours while the building was closed to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. On her social media, she allegedly wrote, “Contact me for a private tour. All PATRIOTS accepted!”

The report does specify that the photos she posted and the messages she wrote were not in violation of government policy. But, it adds, “offering private tours of the US Capitol creates the appearance of impropriety and using a public position for private gain, which is a violation of AOC policy”.

At Thursday’s hearing, Blanton denied the allegations, using his opening statement to denounce the inspector general’s findings. He said the report was filled with “errors, omissions, mischaracterisations, misstatements and conclusionary statements lacking evidence”.

“Given the incredible challenges the agency has overcome the last two years, I am frustrated by the current distraction created by the inspector general’s report regarding the execution of my responsibilities in this position,” he said on Thursday. “I wholeheartedly reject any assertation that I have engaged in unethical behavior during my service to this country.”

Blanton was nominated as Architect of the Capitol in December 2019 and is the 12th person to serve in the position. According to Thursday’s hearing, the Architect of the Capitol oversees an estimated 2,400 employees and an annual operating budget of more than0 $1bn.

Part of the department’s mission is to help oversee security on the government campus: In his role as Architect of the Capitol, Blanton is one of only three voting members on the Capitol Police Board.

The position answers directly to the US president, who is the sole authority able to dismiss the Architect of the Capitol.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies