CVC staff describe litany of problems

Lawmakers expressed their concern about a litany of problems the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) staff said the multimillion-dollar facility experienced under the leadership of Terrie Rouse.

As first reported by The Hill, the firing of Rouse, the chief executive officer of visitor services, was announced to CVC staff on Tuesday.

Over the past several months The Hill has conducted a series of interviews with lawmakers and six CVC staffers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press, about operations in the center.

Rouse could not be reached for comment.

One of the main concerns of the CVC staff stems from the lack of adherence to emergency protocols by supervisors in the CVC.

When a visitor guide or visitor assistant encounters an emergency — such as a tourist having a heart attack — the employee is instructed to place a “priority” call on the radio. About 15 supervisors receive this call and are then supposed to take appropriate action, such as calling an ambulance or the police, the CVC staffers said.

If the CVC employees disregard this process and go directly to a U.S. Capitol Police officer, they face being written up by their supervisor for insubordination.

For example, Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) and some of his staff, including five interns, went on a tour of the Capitol Dome last week, said Bonner’s spokesman Mike Lewis. One of the interns began feeling ill on their way down the hundreds of narrow steps high above the Capitol Rotunda.

The visitor guide immediately put out a priority call over the radio, and repeated this at least three times, according to Lewis. But the CVC employee heard nothing back, which surprised Lewis.

“I noted that the guide radioed the situation asking for help at least three times, and maybe more than that, and none of the times did [the guide] get a response,” Lewis said. “I can’t make a judgment, really, but being from that height the signal should have gone down as long as the receivers were on and they were listening. But I don’t know the condition of the equipment, so I can’t comment on that.”

The intern eventually recovered after about 10 minutes and walked down safely. Lewis said that in the guide’s radio call for help, the guide didn’t specify who it was in need of assistance, so it could have been the congressman for all anyone on the ground knew.

This was not the only time supervisors did not respond to priority calls, said CVC staff. Several employees pointed to another incident in which a young boy hit his head on a statue in Statuary Hall and needed medical assistance. Eventually it was Capitol Police and a medical professional touring the Capitol who helped the boy, after CVC staff did not hear back from their bosses.

Union officials looking to represent CVC staff sent a letter Wednesday to the Architect of the Capitol (AoC), which oversees the CVC, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

In it, Carl Goldman, the executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 26, raised security and safety concerns, saying firing Rouse was a step toward correcting “an untenable situation at the CVC.”

“In some situations, guides have been unable to reach supervisors on their handheld radios when members of the public or congressional staff have fallen ill while on tours,” Goldman said in the letter. “In other situations, supervisors have been totally unresponsive to such emergencies, forcing guides to seek out Capitol Police, potentially losing valuable time.”

This issue and other suggestions to improve the visitor experience have been brought to the attention of Rouse and other managers during a series of roundtable discussions held between employees and their supervisors, which began within the last year, say CVC staff.

Employees were asked to submit their questions for answers ahead of time, they said. On several occasions employees suggested to Rouse that she should take advice from her employees who see, from the ground level, where services could be improved.

“You’re just an employee; you don’t have a voice,” Rouse reportedly said to one CVC staffer, according to employees.

CVC staff point to this attitude of unresponsiveness as a reason why morale is low among the more than 50 visitor guides and 75 visitor assistants.

The roundtables have since stopped. And the CVC employees told The Hill that with the formation of a bargaining union, they hope to have more of a say in daily and long-term operations. That union is expected to be formed in September.

Lawmakers who provide oversight to the AoC said Wednesday that they were not involved in the decision to fire Rouse, but they hoped a relationship of effective communication between both CVC management and members, as well as visitor center staff, could be struck.

“We want someone who’s going to be a strong manager, an effective communicator, who can rally the troops for the day-to-day operations and someone who especially recognizes that this is not a museum, it is a working building,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Appropriations Legislative Branch subcommittee.

A spokeswoman with the office of the AoC declined to comment.

Rouse was replaced by Dan Cassil, who is serving as the CVC’s acting chief executive officer for visitor services. This was not the first time Rouse has been fired from a job. In 1993, she was terminated from the California Afro-American Museum, the largest black museum in the nation.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee, which provides oversight of the CVC, said that, moving forward, he was intent on creating the best possible visitor experience.

“Mr. Lungren’s primary concern is with the successful administration of the CVC,” said Salley Wood, a spokesman for Lungren. “He wants members to be confident that their constituents will have a positive and safe experience when visiting the Capitol.”

In an interview, Lungren said that because Rouse appears to have hired a lawyer, he could not comment specifically about her situation.