Ethics panel ends probe into Bowman fire alarm incident

The House Ethics Committee announced Thursday that it has ended its investigation into Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) for pulling a fire alarm in the Capitol complex during a contentious debate over government funding last fall.

The panel determined that, because Bowman had already accepted legal responsibility for the episode — and because the House had voted in December to censure Bowman for his actions — “further review of Representative Bowman’s conduct would be moot.”

The move came in response to a report on the matter from the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which had recommended that the congressional Ethics panel review the fire alarm episode but dismiss allegations that Bowman had sought to impede congressional operations.

Security cameras caught Bowman pulling the alarm in the Cannon Office Building last September, amid a tense debate over a short-term funding bill to prevent a government shutdown.

The episode prompted immediate accusations from Republicans that he was trying to disrupt the operations of Congress to buy Democrats more time to review the stopgap bill, which had been unveiled shortly before a scheduled vote. Democrats had deployed some stall tactics so members could review the legislation and ensure that there were no poison pills or concerning language.

Bowman, a second-term New York lawmaker, initially said he was confused while rushing to the vote, surprised to find that his normal exit out of Cannon had been shuttered because it was a weekend. He pulled the alarm, he said, thinking it would open the closed door.

Yet the OCE reported contradictions in Bowman’s narrative.

Not only had he “casually walked away” after triggering the alarm, but he also had a destination different from the House floor in mind, according to the OCE investigators.

“[A]t the time of this incident, the House stood adjourned,” the report reads. “Rep. Bowman, contrary to statements issued by his office, was enroute to an emergency Caucus (Democrat) meeting — not to cast an imminent vote.”

It was for that reason that the OCE recommended the dismissal of charges that Bowman had sought to block Congress from its official duties. 

“There is not substantial reason to believe that Rep. Bowman obstructed or attempted to impede an official House proceeding,” the OCE wrote in its report, which was approved unanimously by its six bipartisan members. 

During an interview with the Ethics Committee, Bowman said he was not aware of the effort underway to stall consideration of the short-term continuing resolution.

The OCE also found fault in Bowman’s decision after pulling the alarm to not notify any members of the Capitol Police, despite encountering several officers on his way out of the Cannon Building.

Bowman, OCE said, “did not take reasonable steps to mitigate the potential risk of harm to occupants of the Cannon House Building after causing the building to undergo a building-wide evacuation.”

During his interview with the Ethics panel, when asked about his decision not to explain to Capitol Police or his staff what happened with the fire alarm, Bowman said he was “trying to understand the context of the situation” involving averting a shutdown, citing the newly released legislation.

“I just know my full brain was focused on getting to the vote — the votes, what’s in the bill, what leadership was communicating to me, and that was it. It was single-mindedness, and it was frantic, and it was rushed, and it was embarrassing, as I’ve said,” Bowman said.

He also noted that he thought the fire alarm incident would be simpler than it ended up being: that officials would recognize it was wrongly pulled, then move ahead with the day.

“My whole mind was focused on [the government funding bill], you know, and I thought — I don’t know — you know, similar to what I said about, you know, tripping the door alarm and it makes a sound and it — and it stops and everybody checks and it’s all good, you know, I guess maybe I thought that would happen here; I don’t know. But I was just thinking, you know, about what was happening on the Capitol — or in the Capitol at the time,” he said.

Bowman was charged with a misdemeanor for falsely pulling the alarm and pleaded guilty in October, agreeing to pay a $1,000 fine, serve three months of probation and write an apology letter to the Capitol Police.

In December, the House voted to censure the New York Democrat in a 214-191-5 vote, with three Democrats crossing the aisle to support the reprimand. Censures, however, are largely symbolic as they do not carry any repercussions other than having to stand in the well during a reading of the resolution.

Some lawmakers sought to take the punishment a step further. Former Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), shortly before the House voted on his ouster, moved to force a vote on a resolution to expel Bowman for the fire alarm incident. He argued that Bowman should be subject to an expulsion vote after he was charged with a misdemeanor, just as Santos faced following his criminal indictment.

Santos, however, was expelled before the House considered the Bowman expulsion resolution.

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