The federal government charged a Cheektowaga man with two misdemeanors for his alleged actions last week when a violent mob attacked the U.S. Capitol.
Pete J. Harding, 47, of Cheektowaga appeared remotely in federal court in downtown Buffalo this afternoon for about 20 minutes with U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy on charges of knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority and violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds.
The first charge carries a maximum sentence of one year, a $100,000 fine and a supervised release term of up to one year.
The second charge carries a maximum six-month sentence, a maximum fine of $10,000 and no term of supervised release.
Harding, arrested Wednesday afternoon at a friend’s house in Elma, is the first person from Western New York to be charged after being at the Capitol during the attack that left five people dead.
Last week, Harding admitted to News 4 that he entered the Capitol building peacefully and did not cause any damage or act with any violence.
Photographers also captured video of Harding unsuccessfully using a Bic lighter to ignite a piece of plastic on a pile of smashed news media equipment on the Capitol lawn.
Harding told News 4 that he never intended to ignite the equipment on fire. Rather, he did it as a symbolic message to the news media, which he dislikes for what he described as unfair coverage of Trump and the election results.
Federal prosecutors raised concerns that similar activity might occur in the coming days ahead of the inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden.
Therefore, they asked the judge to approve 10 conditions for his release. They include restricting his travel to only the Western District of New York and Washington, D.C. for only his court appearances, possessing no firearms, following electronic monitoring rules and participating in a computer and electronic devices monitoring program.
Harding’s attorneys, Jason DiPasquale and Jeremy Schwartz, objected to most of the restrictions, arguing that their client himself actually contacted the FBI earlier in the week and did not flee the area.
“These are misdemeanor charges, there’s nothing in the complaint or the facts thereof given rise to a risk of danger by clear and convincing evidence or otherwise that would need to be overcome by the more restrictive conditions,” Schwartz said.
“I think a release on his own recognizance with the general conditions of not committing crimes while on release and reporting to probation and court as directed are sufficient.”
Federal prosecutors said the more restrictive conditions are necessary based off comments Harding made on a Facebook live video after he returned from the Capitol.
In addition, the prosecutor said Harding left his Cheektowaga home sometime in the late evening on Tuesday, around the time the FBI released a poster of his photograph with requests for the public to contact them with any additional information. Therefore, Harding made himself unavailable to authorities.
“Moreover, your honor, the court is aware from the complaint, the defendant knowingly took part in or was a member of a group that entered the Capitol building on January 6 with the intent of disrupting the Constitutional process of certifying the Electoral College votes,” the prosecutor said.
“There is a particularly acute risk of similar conduct in the coming days and after the January 6 riot, the defendant posted on his Facebook, he posted things that expressed a desire to engage in similar conduct in the future and I am quoting, ‘We learned how strong we are, we learned how strong our voices are, we learned how strong our numbers are. If we can take the Capitol building, there is nothing we can’t accomplish’.”
DiPasquale said Harding may have left his house but he did not leave the state or even the same county despite knowing that charges against him appeared imminent.
“He went peacefully with the FBI, he was fully cooperative in the process with the FBI, did not resist in any manner,” DisPasquale said.
“He is taking these charges very seriously; he’s got two attorneys present with him this afternoon.”
DiPasquale said Harding has significant ties to the community, owns two homes in Western New York, and both his parents, brother and adult daughter live locally.
“There’s no indication that he does pose a fight risk or that he would flee the area in the interim,” DiPasquale said.
“Mr. Harding has no prior history of engaging in the alleged riots or acts that he’s charged with. In fact, he’s organized and participated in numerous peaceful, civil demonstrations in the Western New York area.”
Most notably, Harding was one of the organizers of a recent protest in front of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s home in Buffalo.
“Mr. Harding believes that the evidence as the case will bear out that his intention in being there was to protest peacefully and that his actions were peaceful in nature and non-violent while in there,” DisPasquale said.
McCarthy sided with federal prosecutors, saying that the location and electronic monitoring conditions are reasonable under the suggestions that there may be similar events in the near future
“I’m not suggesting whether or not Mr. Harding will participate in those events,” the judge said.
Harding’s next court appearance is remotely at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 19, with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where his case will be handled.