A federal judge on Monday questioned why U.S. prosecutors are asking Capitol riot defendants to pay only $1.5 million in restitution while American taxpayers are paying more than $500 million to cover the costs of the Jan. 6 attack by a pro-Trump mob.

Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell of Washington challenged the toughness of the Justice Department’s stance in a plea hearing for a Colorado Springs man who admitted to one of four nonviolent misdemeanor counts of picketing in the U.S. Capitol.

Howell has already asked in another defendant’s plea hearing whether no-prison misdemeanor plea deals offered by the government are too lenient for individuals involved in “terrorizing members of Congress,” asking pointedly whether the government had “any concern about deterrence?”

On Monday, she pressed the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington on why it was seeking to require only $2,000 in each felony case and $500 in each misdemeanor case.

Crews began to clean up and assess the damage at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 7, a day after hundreds of pro-Trump rioters stormed the building. (Lee Powell, Ray Whitehouse/The Washington Post)

“I’m accustomed to the government being fairly aggressive in terms of fraud when there have been damages that accrue from a criminal act for the restitution amount,” said Howell, a former Brooklyn federal prosecutor and Senate Judiciary Committee general counsel.

“Where we have Congress acting, appropriating all this money due directly to the events of January 6th, I have found the damage amount of less than $1.5 million — when all of us American taxpayers are about to foot the bill for close to half a billion dollars — a little bit surprising,” she said.

The judge alluded to a $2.1 billion security bill passed overwhelmingly July 29 by Congress to cover the costs of the Jan. 6 attack, including reimbursements totaling $521 million for the National Guard and $70 million to the Capitol Police, plus $300 million for Capitol security improvements.

Authorities say the riot contributed to the deaths of five people during or immediately following the attack and the deaths by suicide of multiple police officers. The attack also led to assaults on nearly 140 officers and forced the evacuation of a joint session of Congress meeting to confirm the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Clayton Henry O’Connor told Howell the government would explain how it computed the damage and restitution estimate before October.

The department and U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment beyond court statements.

Prosecutors gave few details in early June when they put a price tag for the first time on damage done to the Capitol in the riots, saying in court filings that as of mid-May the sum totaled “approximately $1,495,326.55.”

The basis of the estimate was not clear but appeared to reflect the immediate costs of replacing broken windows, doors and other property. A spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol said the agency gave damage assessments to the Justice Department, which calculated the per-case penalty, and separate assessments to House and Senate appropriators for wider security costs.

Federal law allows judges at sentencing to order convicted offenders to reimburse victims for property damage and other losses, depending whether losses are a direct and foreseeable result of an offender’s crime. But the law also makes restitution a negotiable item pursuant to plea agreement.

Howell on Monday eventually accepted the guilty plea of Glenn Wes Lee Croy, 46, who admitted traveling with an Ohio co-defendant to attend a rally for President Donald Trump at the Ellipse, walking to the Capitol, and standing at its steps for about an hour before entering the just-breached building at 2:20 p.m.

Croy shared a photo of himself next to a statue of Abraham Lincoln before leaving after about 20 minutes.

Croy and his attorney, Kira Anne West, acknowledged that before entering, he understood access to the Capitol was restricted because he saw police at the top of the steps firing smoke or pepper spray grenades at the crowd but did not know gathering outside was prohibited.

O’Connor noted that in a plea deal signed by both sides on July 31, prosecutors did not agree as they have for some other defendants that a no-jail, probation-
only sentence might be appropriate for Croy, which Howell noted.