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A recent bomb threat was a hoax. But it shows the vulnerability of state legislatures

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Yesterday, government offices and lawmakers in nearly half the country's state capitols received a threatening email. The sender claimed to have planted bombs in statehouses across the country. No explosives were found, and the FBI has deemed the email a hoax. But the threat led to various levels of disruption at a time when many states are just beginning their 2024 legislative sessions. NPR's Ryland Barton joins us now and has been following the story. Hi there.

RYLAND BARTON, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: Ryland, as we said, this was all going down yesterday. What can you tell us today?

BARTON: Well, we know it was a hoax. NPR got a copy of the email, which was three sentences long. It was sent to a seemingly random list of officials in at least 22 different states. For example, in New York, it was sent to the comptroller. In Ohio, it was sent to the Capitol Building visitors office. Here's Michon Lindstrom, communications director for the Kentucky secretary of state.

MICHON LINDSTROM: In other states - like, the secretary of state's office received it, like, the legislature received it. But in Kentucky, the only person who received it was our deputy secretary of state.

BARTON: She said she forwarded it to the state police, which evacuated the Capitol while bomb-sniffing dogs combed the building. At least nine states evacuated government buildings on Wednesday. And in Mississippi, the Capitol was evacuated again after the state Supreme Court received a bomb threat today. But other states didn't evacuate at all.

SUMMERS: OK, former statehouse reporter here. So I know that some statehouses are already back in session, while others have not yet gotten started. Do we have any sense of just how disruptive this all was?

BARTON: So the shutdowns were pretty brief - a few hours in most states. In Kentucky and Mississippi, it was just the second day of the session. In Kentucky, lawmakers weren't actually in the Capitol building at that time. They were in an ethics training in another part of the complex. So that continued uninterrupted. But the secretary of state's office did say it disrupted some candidate filings. That deadline is this week. Then in Minnesota, the state Supreme Court moved hearings to the - to other courtrooms across the street. So not a huge impact, Juana, but it is worrisome as more statehouses do start coming into session and getting to the business of actually passing laws.

SUMMERS: OK. I know you said at the top that this was a hoax, but do we know anything yet about who is behind all of this or what their motivation might be?

BARTON: So the FBI is investigating. In a statement to NPR, they said that they, quote, "take hoax threats very seriously" because it puts innocent people at risk. But they said they had no information to call this a specific, credible threat and are still working with local police to gather information. But because of how widely this threat was dispersed, it's just hard to tell what political motivation was behind it, if any at all.

SUMMERS: Right. I mean, this is also coming amid other types of harassment and threats against public officials recently. And, Ryland, I have to imagine that all of this might have some legislators a bit unsettled.

BARTON: Again, state lawmakers in Georgia and Ohio, the mayor of Boston, the Maine secretary of state, plus Marjorie Taylor Greene and Rick Scott all reported swatting incidents around the holidays. Swatting is when someone falsely reports an incident at someone's home with the intention of provoking a police response. Georgia state Senator Clint Dixon told member station WABE that the incident at his house on Christmas evening was startling for him and his family. He said he was watching football at the time when all of a sudden he heard his wife yelling and that there was police running at the door. There's been a surge in threats against public servants at all levels in recent years. Several states have already passed laws increasing penalties for these swatting calls, and more are considering proposals after these high-profile incidents have taken place.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Ryland Barton. Thank you.

BARTON: Thanks, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryland Barton
Ryland is the state capitol reporter for the Kentucky Public Radio Network, a group of public radio stations including WKU Public Radio. A native of Lexington, Ryland has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.