Sen. Pat Toomey joined the chorus of lawmakers who signed a sharply critical letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray over the unorthodox arrest of a prominent Bucks County pro-life advocate. And his attorney says the entire operation is designed to intimidate pro-life Americans into silence.
Mark Houck, 48, of Kintnersville, was charged with violating the federal Freedom of Access of Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) regarding an October 2021 incident outside an abortion clinic in Philadelphia. Philadelphia police and the district attorney’s office had declined to charge Houck at the time. A private legal action by the pro-abortion activist was dismissed in July.
Houck pleaded not guilty to the federal charges this past week. If convicted, he faces up to a maximum of 11 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and fines of up to $350,000, according to a Department of Justice statement.
Houck has been represented by the Thomas More Society, a public interest law firm, which has been in contact with the FBI since he received a “target letter” in May. Houck’s attorneys informed the DOJ he would voluntarily appear in court. But according to the family’s account, a contingent of heavily-armed FBI agents showed up at Houck’s home last week pointing guns at his family, including young children.
“Given their cooperation with federal law enforcement, the family did not expect to be awakened at 7 a.m. with reportedly over 20 FBI agents surrounding their home wearing armor-plated tactical vests, ballistic helmets, and holding ballistic shields and long guns,” Toomey and his fellow senators wrote.
“The Houck family’s account of the FBI coming to their family home to arrest Mark Houck, who was already cooperating with law enforcement, is concerning,” said Toomey (R-Pa.) via Twitter.
Peter Breen, vice president and senior counsel for Thomas More, told DVJournal the letter from Toomey and the other senators was very “pointed,” asking why the FBI did not use a de-escalation plan Garland had put into place earlier this year.
“Just three years ago, I won a FACE case on similar facts in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. On that basis, they have no case against Mark Houck,” said Breen. “And his case, not involving a Mafia boss, he’s got a men’s ministry. (Houck is) what you might call an evangelist, a Catholic speaker.”
“He does not have a criminal history of any sort and when a distinguished former federal prosecutor says, ‘I will bring my client in,’ and even if they wanted to make a show of arresting him, you would not send more than a couple of agents, and those agents would not be dragging him out at gunpoint.
“They would be knocking on the door, presenting an arrest warrant, letting him get his effects and, in a dignified way, say goodbye to his family for the day, then go downtown. Under no circumstances do you send at least 20 federal agents and apparently state law enforcement as well, with shields, long guns, helmets, and the like,” said Breen.
The Thomas More Society has brought in well-known Philadelphia lawyer Brian McMonagle to defend Houck.
According to Ryan-Marie Houck, 15 law enforcement vehicles were on their front lawn.
“Can you even imagine? What if their 6-year-old had gone out with a toy gun because he saw his daddy taken away? What would have happened?” asked Breen. Mark Houck is “not a threat,” he said.
Breen believes the raid was orchestrated out of DOJ headquarters in Washington, not Philadelphia.
Asked whether it would have a chilling effect on people’s rights to freedom of religion and speech, Breen said, “Well, the only reason for a show of force like this was to send a message to people of faith, pro-life people, in an intimidating way. So that’s how I received it. We see that as an intimidation message. If you exercise your First Amendment rights, there could be a bunch of federal agents at your door.”
And Houck was not someone involved in national politics. He was an ordinary person, Breen pointed out.
“If Mark Houck was such a danger to the community, why did it take a year to go and pick him up?” asked Breen.
The alleged victim approached Houck and his then 12-year-old son while praying in front of an abortion clinic. That man “harassed” the boy, and “an altercation ensued,” Breen said.
Breen said the incident had no connection to the FACE Act because Houck was not blocking the entrance to the abortion clinic or stopping anyone from getting an abortion.
“None of that happened here,” said Breen. “This is an intimidation tactic, a meritless case, and we are going to stand up firmly against it.”
“Maybe the Justice Department thought they could roll one individual pro-lifer…but we are going to make sure he has the most vigorous defense that can be mounted,” said Breen.
“We are very grateful that the senators and congress members are looking to assist,” he said. “They are also asking the question, ‘What in the world is going on with this raid? Why are you prosecuting this guy? It’s a local matter.”
The DVJournal asked area Congress members and candidates for Congress whether they plan to sign the Houck letter.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Bucks) did not respond. Nor did Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Delaware/Philadelphia), or Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County).
“As one of the most bipartisan members of Congress, Rep. Houlahan is constantly looking for opportunities to work across the aisle to deliver real progress for her community, not partisan talking points,” said Aubrey Stuber, communications director for (Chrissy) Houlahan (D-Chester/Berks). “The letter was never even circulated to our legislative staff for consideration, a sign that it was intended to be a partisan exercise. So while Rep. Houlahan takes oversight of our federal agencies very seriously, this letter demonstrates a lack of collaboration and bipartisanship.”
Dean’s Republican opponent, Christian Nascimento, said, “My understanding was that the local authorities either dismissed or did not pursue charges in this case. If that is true, then the DOJ should explain why the federal government felt the need to get involved, and on what evidence.”