WASHINGTON – Maryland senators and their staffs had to work in field offices, in improvised Capitol Hill offices or from homes Tuesday, after a poison scare that closed all Senate buildings.
Neither Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes nor Sen. Barbara Mikulski have offices in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where the poison ricin was discovered Monday afternoon in a stack of mail in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s office. The Maryland Democrats are in the Hart building, which is connected to Dirksen.
But Capitol Police closed the entire complex as a precaution while officials check all the unopened mail in the complex. The Senate sergeant-at-arms, William Pickle, said Tuesday that he hopes offices can be opened next week, depending on the progress of the investigation.
In the meantime, the business of the Senate continued. Sarbanes handled legislative matters in another Hill office — with minimal staff, at the request of the Capitol Police — while constituent matters were sent to field offices, said spokesman Jesse Jacobs. He said the senator participated in activities such as speaking on the floor and going to the party caucus lunches.
Mikulski staffers were working in the Baltimore and Greenbelt offices or from their homes, said press secretary Amy E. Hagovsky.
It is not the first time Mikulski and Sarbanes have been displaced by a poison scare — the same thing happened more than two years ago when anthrax was found in a Senate office. But that does not make it any easier, Jacobs said.
“That is always a problem when you’re not able to access your computers and papers,” he said.
Despite the disruption, Hagovsky said staffers performed the normal daily work and will continue to do so in the coming days.
Neither Sarbanes, Mikulski nor their staffs would comment on the ricin incident.
Frist said that keeping people out of the offices has been a “real inconvenience,” but that it will not alter normal business in the Senate. The Tennessee Republican characterized the incident as a terrorist act, but said it has not been linked to any organization so far.
The poison ricin is made of castor beans, which are difficult to trace because they can be found throughout the world. Tests of the powder and the filters in the Senate office ventilation system continued Tuesday and Capitol Police and the FBI are trying to track how it ended up in Frist’s office.
Capitol Police Chief Terrence Gainer said investigators have not determined how the powder got into the building — whether it was delivered in one, or more packages, or somehow brought into the building and put with the mail.
Frist said that apart from the frightening experience, no one on his staff has shown symptoms of ricin inhalation, which is not contagious but is deadly and has no known antidote.
Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said it will take time and patience to complete the criminal investigation but that the Capitol’s infrastructure is better prepared to deal with the ricin incident than it was with the anthrax attack in 2001.
— CNS reporter Melissa McGrath contributed to this story.
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