Staffers at Rep. Elijah Cummings' Baltimore office arrived Wednesday to find gobs of putty and wiring on the door, raising fears of an explosive attack and drawing emergency crews from around the region.
Though the suspicious objects turned out to be harmless, they alarmed many around the Park Avenue office of the Baltimore Democrat and spawned a criminal inquiry by the FBI.
Cummings said he and his colleagues have come to expect more threats over the past few years as political discourse has grown more charged. He also said elected officials have been on guard following the January 2011 shooting that critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords near Tuscon, Ariz.
"We get some kind of threat almost every week," he said. "After Gabby Giffords was shot … I can tell you we all — all 435 members of Congress and all members of the Senate — became more responsive to this type of thing."
The objects at Cummings' office building were discovered at 7:30 a.m. when two staff members arrived at the three-story, red brick office at Park Avenue and North Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Mid-Town Belvedere.
Cummings' district director noticed a smattering of 10 putty-like objects covering the office's glass door along with attached wiring.
"Something that gave the appearance of plastic explosive devices," Cummings said.
The district director called Baltimore police, who told staff members to clear the building. The U.S. Capitol Police, FBI and the Department of Homeland Security soon joined in the investigation.
"No hazards were developed out of testing that was done, and we don't anticipate any hazards at all," said Special Agent Richard Wolf, an FBI spokesman.
Adjacent offices in the Symphony Center, which houses Social Security Administration offices and luxury apartments, were not evacuated — though police roped off much of a brick courtyard outside.
Some neighboring businesses said police told them they would be asked to leave if a real threat emerged. Others said they were left in the dark for hours.
"I'm concerned about the safety of myself," said Dawn Wells, who works for Social Security. "We serve the public in my office. There's employees in here, people who should be made aware."
By early afternoon the bomb scare was called off, but the office and surrounding area remained roped off as a crime scene. Glove-wearing FBI technicians marked spots on the congressman's glass door with yellow tape, bagged and took photos of evidence. They also scraped off several stickers from the door.
Cummings said they did not contain threats.
Wolf said the FBI has launched a criminal investigation to determine who was responsible for the substances. He declined to say what the putty was made of.
Cummings said he was grateful that all 10 of his employees who work out of the office were safe. He was in Washington on Wednesday morning but returned to Baltimore in the afternoon to survey the office, which he expected to reopen quickly.
He said he didn't know if he was specifically targeted, but pointed out that his office was clearly marked with his title and name on a green awning. A large congressional seal also adorns a front window.
"This is the first time anyone has gone to this extent," said Cummings, who represents an area that stretches from Baltimore to Howard County.
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