Pennsylvania's Midstate U.S. Attorney Had Prosecuted It All. Then Came The Pandemic And An Insurrection.
Acting Middle District U.S. Attorney Bruce Brandler has been a federal prosecutor for 35 years, putting criminals like corrupt public officials and shady business owners behind bars.
But the unusual year and a half has produced unusual crimes — and the veteran law enforcement official is pursuing them in an unusual environment.
“For the better part of last year and continuing into this year, we basically are working on a skeleton crew that is in the office,” Brandler said during an interview in late May.
As a precaution during the coronavirus pandemic, no more than 25 percent of Brandler’s staff can be working in-person at the Harrisburg Federal Building and other district offices at one time. Usually, 90 to 95 people are crafting cases or making court appearances in the sprawling complex, but dozens of them are still working remotely.
That’s been the backdrop for what Brandler said is one of the most “unique” stretches of time in his career, stretching all the way back to when he first came to Pennsylvania in 1986. Before that, he served as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, New York, and even spent some time as in-house counsel for a New York state Senate committee.
“Yeah, I’ve been here several decades,” he said. “[I’ve] gone through seven administrations, starting with Ronald Reagan and have enjoyed every minute of it.”
Brandler stepped into the U.S. attorney role at the start of this year — when predecessor David Freed resigned and eventually entered the private sector — but he had served in the role once before, in 2016, before Freed was confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
As a line prosecutor and then chief of the office’s criminal division, Brandler watched the Middle District office add more staff and gradually go after more complex crimes, like illegal dumping at Superfund sites.
But in the last year plus, a particular kind of bad guy has taken up a lot of Brandler’s time: those who have been trying to rip off some of the billions of dollars in CARES Act and extra unemployment money.
“[They’ve been] inflating the number of employees, just making up sham companies, counterfeiting pandemic-related equipment, and then we’ve also seen a lot of unemployment insurance fraud.”
So far, Brandler said his office has prosecuted a dozen people from the midstate on fraud charges, with more on the way. Across the country, the feds have charged 600 people with those crimes.
Prosecuting those cases has been slow, steady work: the government’s lawyers and support staff have spent months getting documents, doing investigations and interviews, and appearing in federal court.
That would have been the major crime for Brandler and his office — but then the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol happened and federal law enforcement turned its attention to tracking down those who broke the law.
Since many were from Pennsylvania, a good chunk of that work has fallen to Brandler and his team.
“It’s the largest criminal investigation of its type in the history of the Department of Justice, [in terms of] the volume of cases and the level of investigation that’s been needed,” he said. “Obviously what happened on January 6th was a disgrace.”
Here’s how it’s working: Midstate FBI agents are doing most of the legwork, combing through raw evidence to figure out what points to which person. As they find and arrest people, Brandler and his crew get charging documents in order and get the accused before a federal judge.
Then, they hand the person off to the Washington, D.C. office, which is handling cases against the nearly 500 people charged from across the country.
Nearly four dozen are from Pennsylvania, and 20 are from the midstate.
“There’s many more in the pipeline, and we get requests from the District of Columbia for volunteers to help out in those prosecutions and reviewing search warrants and handling discovery matters for those cases,” Brandler said. “We’ve contributed what we can.”
Brandler explained it’s been draining work from the start, especially since authorities at the Capitol that day let all the rioters leave instead of making mass arrests. According to the U.S. Capitol Police union, 140 people were injured during the attack and five people died of either natural causes or as a direct result of the rioting.
“[Mass arrests] would have made it obviously a lot easier to identify them [rioters], but I think rightly so, the decision was reached to let the situation calm down,” Brandler said.
The feds have five years to find and charge people, which means more from the midstate could wind up being processed by Brandler and his team.
“That’s for felonies, [and] there are some exceptions to that rule. But I would say these investigations are going to continue for a long time.”
Brandler said he does not expect to be serving as the U.S. attorney for much longer; within the next year, the Senate will likely confirm President Joe Biden’s permanent pick for the role. But when the time comes for him to step down, Brandler said the way he helped his staff navigate a year none of them could have expected will be one of his shining achievements.
“I think people in general have pulled together in a time of crisis to make sure that our job gets done and the mission gets completed. I’m very happy with the way things have turned out under the circumstances.”
NPR’s Investigative and News Apps teams have published a database of everyone arrested so far in connection with the Capitol Riot. This area of reporting is ongoing, and the database is being updated.