An FBI investigation that included an airport stakeout led to the arrest Friday of a former grassroots organizer for the conservative group FreedomWorks for allegedly taking part in the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 as electoral votes were being tallied.
Brandon Prenzlin, 26, faces four federal misdemeanor charges, including entering the Capitol without permission and disorderly conduct.
Prenzlin was present in the Capitol for less than four minutes on Jan. 6, according to an affidavit from FBI Special Agent Clarke Burns used to get a warrant for the conservative activist’s arrest.
Still frames taken from surveillance video show Prenzlin walking past a metal detector inside the Upper House Door and milling around with other protesters as police streamed by.
The FBI’s investigation of Prenzlin appears to have kicked off July 11 with a tip from an unnamed confidential source who identified the conservative activist in publicly-available video, according to Burns.
The FBI then dove into social media posts by Prenzlin and other FreedomWorks staffers, turning up images that appeared to match the individual seen in the videos from Jan. 6. The FBI zeroed in on “distinctive navy-blue shoes with dark tan thick gum soles” worn by the suspect in the videos.
Prenzlin was wearing similar shoes in a photo from a June Twitter post by a FreedomWorks colleague, the FBI noted.
Agents then took the somewhat unusual step of conducting “physical surveillance” of Prenzlin as he arrived on a flight at Reagan National Airport on July 20. The FBI affidavit includes a photo of Prenzlin pulling wheeled luggage while wearing similar blue shoes, a red FreedomWorks golf shirt and a mask that had slipped below his nose.
In addition, federal investigators may have had an eye on Prenzlin before his flight landed. “On July 26, 2021, a federal law enforcement officer on Prenzlin’s July 20, 2021 flight was provided photographs of Prenzlin inside and just outside of the Capitol,” Burns wrote. “The officer stated that the individual in these photos looked ‘exactly like’ the individual known to be Prenzlin from airline manifest information, including seat number.”
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Burns’ affidavit says at one point that the FBI watched Prenzlin come off a flight on June 20, but that date may be an error.
FreedomWorks highlighted a series of election fraud claims before and after the vote last November, stoking the same anger that brought many to the Capitol to insist — incorrectly — that former President Donald Trump had won reelection.
However, after the Jan. 6 riot, the advocacy group issued a statement saying violence had undercut “the very foundations of what our founding fathers built.”
FreedomWorks spokesperson Peter Vicenzi said Thursday Prenzlin was no longer employed with the group as of Monday. His photo and biography, which described him as a grassroots manager for the group, were recently taken down from the FreedomWorks website.
Vicenzi declined to respond to questions about when the group learned of Prenzlin’s alleged presence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 or whether other FreedomWorks staff had any involvement in the investigation. However, the spokesperson said the group wasn’t involved in the Jan. 6 takeover of the Capitol.
“FreedomWorks was in no way involved in the event. Prenzlin entered the Capitol alone,” Vicenzi said.
Court records show Prenzlin was arrested Friday in Arlington, Va. Prenzlin seems to have spent the weekend in law enforcement custody before appearing by video Monday afternoon before Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui. Prosecutors did not seek Prenzlin’s detention and he was released on personal recognizance.
FreedomWorks, formed in 2004 by a merger of other conservative/libertarian groups, was closely associated at its founding with Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) and enjoyed funding from businesspeople Charles and David Koch. Armey left the group in an acrimonious split in 2012.
At the outset of the Obama administration, FreedomWorks was allied with the burgeoning tea party movement. In recent years, it has encouraged protests against coronavirus-related lockdown measures.
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.