Lockdown at state capitol: Abdul-Samad receives letter with suspicious powder

The Iowa capitol is currently under lockdown. Sometime before 4 pm this afternoon, State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad’s clerk was opening mail in the Iowa House chamber while House members were debating a bill on banning traffic cameras. One envelope contained white powder and a threatening message. According to a source inside the House chamber, powder got on the clerk, Abdul-Samad, and the carpet. Radio Iowa reported that debate was suspended at 3:47 pm. About an hour later, visitors were asked not to leave the building.

As of 5:30 pm, two yellow-suited hazmat workers are in the House chamber trying to determine whether the white powder is dangerous. Other than Abdul-Samad, who was taken to another room, most of the state representatives are in the chamber, as are many of their clerks and Iowa House Republican and Democratic staff. Some lobbyists are in the House gallery, having taken seats there to watch debate before the lockdown.

UPDATE: Further news on this story is after the jump.

A witness told KCCI-TV’s Todd Magel that the white powder “smelled like detergent, but was accompanied by a threatening letter.” Let’s hope it was nothing more dangerous than that.

Mike Wiser posted this photo of the hazmat workers. Republican State Representative Chris Hagenow posted this picture.

Jason Clayworth reported for the Des Moines Register that “multiple areas and people” could be at risk due to a botched response to the incident.

Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo who is trained in hazmat response, said it’s no laughing matter. Dotzler is a former volunteer with the John Deere Fire Brigade and was fully trained with the Waterloo hazmat team. He additionally helped write John Deere’s hazmat response manual.

House members should have been immediately isolated and even removed from the chambers to an isolated area to avoid further possible exposure, Dotzler said. Instead, state representatives and members of the public walked around the Capitol and some even left the building, he noted.

“They were letting them walk everywhere,” Dotzler said. “You would think that there would be some general training for this kind of situation. Maybe they did have it and people didn’t realize it?”

Dotzler continued: “In the world we live in you have to take every case seriously. People said, ‘Well, it smelled like soap.’ Well, you can mix toxic biological agents in with soap and it could be something that’s pretty bad.”

A source tells me that GOP State Representative Jeremy Taylor’s two small children entered the House chamber after the suspicious envelope had been opened. Taylor’s wife is also his legislative clerk, a common practice in the Iowa legislature.

Democratic State Representative Beth Wessel-Kroeschell posted on Facebook around 6 pm, “Update: initial tests indicate it is not a hazardous substance. More tests to be done in their truck. The death threat letter to [Ako] Abdul-Samad continues to haunt us.”

Debate resumed in the House chamber around 7 pm.

Shortly after 8 pm, legislators got word that the substance was not hazardous. Also, the Iowa House approved House File 2450, the traffic camera ban, by 58 votes to 42 (don’t have the breakdown yet, but it was a bipartisan vote according to Republican Chris Hagenow).

Abdul-Samad declined to discuss details of the threatening letter when speaking to reporters around 8 pm. O.Kay Henderson posted a link to the audio from that brief news conference.

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