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Senators demand answers after FBI arrests pro-life activist, say it may violate DOJ use-of-force policy

Houck
The Houck family |

A dozen Republican U.S. senators have sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI suggesting that federal agents may have violated use-of-force policy when they arrested a Catholic pro-life activist last week. 

The twelve Republican senators, most of whom are on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, led by ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray asking them to justify the show of force that accompanied the arrest of Mark Houck. Houck was indicted by a grand jury last Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced last Friday that it arrested Houck on charges of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. The law subjects anyone who "intentionally injures, intimidates or interferes with or attempts to injure, intimidate or interfere with" any person who seeks to "provide reproductive health services" to federal charges.

Houck is the president of The King's Men, a Catholic ministry created to "unite and build up other men in the mold of leader, protector, and provider through education, formation, healing, and action."

The DOJ contends that "the defendant is alleged to have twice assaulted a man because he was a volunteer reproductive health care clinic escort," adding "the defendant forcefully shoved" the man to the ground on two separate occasions, one of which required him to receive medical attention. The altercation took place outside a Philadelphia Planned Parenthood on Oct. 13, 2021. 

However, the Houcks and their supporters contend that the father was protecting his 12-year-old son because the escort was harassing them and even got in his son's face after they tried to walk away from the man.  

A fundraiser set up on the Christian crowdfunding platform GiveSendGo to raise money for Houck's family states that the clinic escort began "harassing" Houck's then 12-year-old son, prompting Houck and his son to walk away from the front of the building where they had been praying.

"The escort followed them, and when he continued yelling at Mark's son, Mark pushed him away," the fundraiser states. As of Thursday afternoon, the fundraiser has raised more than $335,000. 

The fundraiser reported that FBI agents "had guns drawn and shields up in the faces of Mark, his wife, and their seven young children." However, the FBI has refuted that description of last week's arrest at Houck's home.

Published Wednesday, the senators' letter asks Garland if the FBI's actions went against his May 20 memo advising DOJ employees to use "de-escalation tactics and techniques" to gain "voluntary compliance from a subject before using force."

The memo stressed that "such tactics and techniques should be employed if objectively feasible and they would not increase the danger to the officer or others" and highlighted how "reducing the need for force allows officers to secure their own safety as well as the safety of the public."

The lawmakers questioned why using force was necessary because all indications from Houck's attorney are that Houck was more than willing to cooperate with the investigation, but DOJ officials stopped communicating with them. 

The letter discusses the contents of an email sent by Houck's attorney to an assistant U.S. attorney, which insisted that "if the Department intended to indict Mr. Houck, he would receive the summons on Mr. Houck's behalf and that he would appear voluntarily."

The attorney "made clear to the committee that he and Mr. Houck were cooperative with the Justice Department; however, in return the Justice Department failed to communicate with them," the letter declared. 

One of Houck's attorneys, John Williamson, contends that the clinic escort filed a criminal complaint against Houck that was dismissed by authorities in Philadelphia after the escort failed to appear at least twice for the scheduled trial. Williamson further stated that the district attorney in the case suggested that the matter be settled as a civil case. 

The criminal complaint against Houck was dismissed on April 22. But five days later, Houck received a letter from the Justice Department informing him of an investigation into potential violations of the FACE Act. From that point on, Houck retained former federal prosecutor Matt Heffron as an attorney. 

"Mr. Heffron informed the committee that he communicated to Assistant U.S. Attorney Anita Eve twice via phone and left voice messages after she didn't pick up," the senators' letter states.

"After not receiving a return call, Mr. Heffron emailed Ms. Eve to note that he left voice messages on May 21, 2022, and June 7, 2022, and said in his email that if the Department intended to indict Mr. Houck, he would receive the summons on Mr. Houck's behalf and that he would appear voluntarily. According to Mr. Heffron, Ms. Eve did not respond. Mr. Heffron made clear to the committee that he and Mr. Houck were cooperative with the Justice
Department; however, in return the Justice Department failed to communicate with them."

Mark Houck arrest aftermath
FBI agents provide Ryan-Marie Houck with a warrant after arresting her husband, Mark, a pro-life activist, at his Bucks County, Pennsylvania home on Sept. 23, 2022. |

A picture attached with the letter documents the aftermath of the scene that unfolded at the Houcks' house on the morning of Sept. 23.

The lawmakers said the photo was taken following Houck's arrest when "a few FBI agents remained to give [Mrs. Houck] a copy of the arrest warrant." The letter points out that "the photograph shows an agent with a ballistic shield and long gun." 

The letter concluded with a request for the federal government's top law enforcement agencies to answer a series of questions asking why they waited until 11 months after the altercation at the Philadelphia Planned Parenthood to indict Houck. The senators also seek clarification on how the execution of the warrant for Houck's arrest reconciled with Garland's May memorandum. The lawmakers requested responses to their inquiries by Oct. 12. 

"This extraordinary fact pattern requires additional information from the Justice
Department and the FBI relating to why Mr. Houck was not allowed to self-report for his arrest
and arraignment and whether political considerations were made to approve and execute the
search warrant," the senators wrote. 

Houck's wife, Ryan-Marie Houck, appeared on Fox News Wednesday with her lawyer, characterizing the early-morning arrest of her husband as "devastating." She suggested that "it's hard to even express the victimization and how traumatized we all are due to this unnecessary thing that happened to us."

She estimated that 20 to 30 FBI agents showed up at her property in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to arrest her husband.

"My entire front yard, you could barely see it, it was covered with at least 15 big trucks and cars," she recalled. She spoke of FBI agents "completely in jackets with shields and helmets and guns." 

When asked about the mental condition of her children nearly a week after the raid, Houck responded, "it's hard to tell." She contends, "the older ones, we can talk, we can cry … we've had some counseling, we have more counseling to do." She said that among her youngest children, "there's a lot of crying and a lot of unrestful sleep" and "a lot of kids in our bed at night and in the morning." 

Peter Breen, an attorney with the Thomas More Society who is defending Houck, told Fox News that its telling that the district attorney in Philadelphia refused to press charges, noting that "he's not a friend" of the pro-life movement.

"The alleged victim filed a private criminal complaint, which eventually the local courts threw out because the guy couldn't be bothered to show up for the hearings," Breen stated. 

The FBI previously issued a statement to Fox News attempting to clarify what the agency characterized as "inaccurate claims being made regarding the arrest of Mark Houck." The statement asserted that "No SWAT Team or SWAT operators were involved" and that "FBI agents knocked on Mr. Houck's front door, identified themselves as FBI agents and asked him to exit the residence."

Court documents indicate that Houck was released on $10,000 bail Friday. Under the terms of his release, the pro-life activist must surrender his passport and firearms and cannot travel outside the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where the case against him is unfolding, unless he is permitted to do so. 

In a blow to his ministry efforts, Houck cannot engage in sidewalk counseling and prayer at the Philadelphia Planned Parenthood where his encounters with the escort took place. The Thomas More Society webpage devoted to the efforts to defend Houck proclaims that "He would drive two hours every week to speak outside of abortion clinics for six to eight hours at a time, often bringing his twelve-year-old son."

If convicted, Houck faces up to 11 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and up to $350,000 in fines. 

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ryan.foley@christianpost.com

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