WASHINGTON — Senate security officials have taken new steps to protect the secrecy of senators’ weekly closed-door lunches in the U.S. Capitol after a contract employee was arrested and accused of recording audio of a Republican lunch meeting in early March, four sources said.
“It’s really concerning,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said of the incident, which has not previously been made public. “Those conversations are an opportunity for senators to talk candidly about issues. So to have people on record and easily identifiable by their voices is problematic.”
Capitol Police arrested and charged a 25-year-old Maryland man with a misdemeanor, “interception/use of wire tap,” which was later dismissed, according to court documents. The employee told police he set his phone to record “for multiple hours” during the Senate Republican lunch on March 7 and left it behind, court documents say. When the employee went back with a police escort to retrieve the phone, he was told it was not there. A senator had spotted the phone and handed it over to police, two sources said.
NBC News originally withheld the identity of the employee because charges had been dropped. But in an interview after this article was first published, the man, Patrick Gartor, said he regrets recording the meeting.
“I just wanted to learn from them," he told NBC News.
Gartor, who said he started working as a server on Capitol Hill three weeks before the incident, described himself as “a Trump person," adding, “I love Republicans.”
“I was eager to learn, I see these people on TV,” Gartor said.
Gartor’s attorney, Matthew Rist, told NBC News that his client’s case was dismissed on Wednesday without explanation.
“I personally think that Mr. Gartor is harmless,” Rist said in an interview. “And with no prior criminal record, they dismissed the case because he’s not connected to anyone else and he’s not a threat to anyone. And I think that the government saw that and that’s why they dismissed the case.”
The incident, however, prompted security officials to institute new protocols for contractors and service staff members, including a requirement for workers to leave cellphones in cabinets outside the party meeting rooms before they enter Senate lunches.
Capitol police are also now required to wand workers with a metal detector before allowing them to enter.
According to court documents, Gartor told police before he was arrested that he had been recording the meeting “for multiple hours.” He also claimed that he was married to the vice president of Liberia and “wanted to provide his ‘wife’ the Vice President of Liberia with American political information.”
There is no record that Gartor is married to the vice president of Liberia. The Liberian Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment. (Gartor, who said he came to the United States from Liberia in 2015, said in the interview with NBC News that he had never met her, but admitted to having "an infatuation" with her.)
According to the document, Gartor also possessed “gathered trash” from the Senate Republican lunch meeting, including “a slideshow of information that was talked about in the event.”
“It was a temporary person hired on by the food service people. The phone was left in the record mode found in the food line,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo. “It’s very concerning.”
Gartor was an employee of At Your Service, a food service and bartender provider with locations along the East Coast. The company provides staffing for Senate lunches and other functions as a subcontractor for Restaurant Associates, the company that handles food services on the Senate side of the Capitol, the court records say.
“This activity is in direct violation of our policies, let alone the appropriate decorum and respect we expect of anyone serving the Senate community,” Sam Souccar, the senior vice president of Creative Services for Restaurant Associates, told NBC News in a statement. “We can confirm the issue has been addressed and appropriately handled.”
Asked for information about the incident, a U.S. Capitol Police spokesman said, “We cannot publicly discuss any potential ongoing investigations at this time.”
The Senate sergeant at arms did not respond to repeated requests for information about the incident or any subsequent security posture.
The Senate’s weekly party luncheons, held almost every Tuesday in the Capitol, provide senators with the opportunity to discuss the agenda for the week, as well as strategize over coming legislation and nominations. The meetings are attended by senators and very few staff members; conversations are considered private but are often leaked to reporters.
“I think it was kind of a one-off thing,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D. “The question I had was did anyone put him up to it? And to my knowledge, the answer is no.”
The incident has Republican senators buzzing about what the employee was doing and why he was able to get into the lunch.
“I am very concerned that it’s someone in close proximity of the building and the members, some of whom have personal security assigned to them,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said. “I think that was worrisome when I heard it.”