Maryland’s top federal prosecutor sees an opportunity amid the widespread fraud that accompanied the flow of COVID-19 relief money during the pandemic: new avenues to prosecute people who also commit violent crimes.
As part of what he calls the “Al Capone model,” U.S. Attorney Erek L. Barron wants his prosecutors to look for new ways to connect pandemic-related fraud and violent crime, two top priorities for the office.
“If you think outside the box, you can find connections that you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of,” Barron said in an interview with The Daily Record.
Federal watchdogs estimate that tens of billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief money and unemployment payments were made improperly or paid out to fraudsters. Maryland federal prosecutors have already brought a string of indictments related to COVID-19 emergency aid, such as Paycheck Protection Program loans and supplemental unemployment payments.
Barron, who was sworn in on Oct. 7, wants to continue pushing pandemic fraud as a top priority while also integrating it with his office’s focus on violent crime.
In the same way that tax evasion charges gave prosecutors ammunition to move against Al Capone, the famed gangster of the Prohibition era, COVID-19 fraud investigations could offer another option to get violent people off the streets.
“We have found that people who are violent are involved in other wrongdoing,” Barron said. “That information on the fraud side can be very helpful in investigating crimes on the violent side.”
That means Barron’s office must work side by side with state and federal partners, such as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General. Sharing information about violent crime targets with fraud investigators could yield results that are helpful to both sides, Barron said.
Barron is also advocating for his office to receive more resources. He is making a case to the U.S. Department of Justice that the members of his office “punch above our weight.”
Though Barron declined to detail his request for resources, he pointed to a letter that Baltimore’s congressional delegation sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland in August.
The lawmakers requested additional federal resources to fight federal crime in Baltimore and specifically asked for five additional prosecutors to be added to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland.
Barron said he believes his office should be staffed comparably to other federal prosecutors’ offices with similar populations, such as the District of Massachusetts.
“We think we compare favorably and think we should be resourced similarly,” Barron said.
The office is known for its focus on public corruption, and in recent years won convictions against Baltimore police officers who were involved in the Gun Trace Task Force and against former Mayor Catherine Pugh for fraud and tax evasion.
Another high-profile case has kept the spotlight on Barron’s office recently: Prosecutors returned an indictment against Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby this month.
Mosby is accused of lying about financial hardships related to COVID-19 in order to withdraw money from her retirement account and of failing to disclose a federal tax lien on mortgage applications for two Florida properties.
Mosby’s lawyer, A. Scott Bolden, has claimed that the charges against Mosby are racially and politically motivated. And the federal prosecutor’s office has gained something of a reputation for targeting Black elected officials.
Barron, who is Maryland’s first Black U.S. attorney, declined to comment on that perception.
“If appropriate, we investigate, we follow the evidence where it leads, we look at the facts and the law, and we make a decision from there,” he said.
Barron said his office will also vigorously enforce U.S. civil rights laws, specifically citing federal prohibitions on discrimination in housing, police misconduct and abuse of vulnerable populations, including the elderly and disabled.
In addition, the office will assist released convicts in returning to society and meet frequently with community leaders and groups to discuss their concerns about criminal and civil justice, Barron said.
“We are not cheerleading on the sidelines,” he added. “We are active at the table.”
— Daily Record reporter Steve Lash contributed to this article