Houston officer charged in connection to Capitol attack

Former officer Tam Pham was charged Tuesday after federal agents found deleted photos on Pham's phone of him inside the Capitol building

By Nicole Hensley
Houston Chronicle

WASHINGTON — The former officer who resigned from the Houston Police Department amid accusations that he illegally entered the U.S. Capitol building with a violent mob now faces federal charges, with agents saying in court records that he deleted photos from his phone of his participation and lied to investigators.

Tam Pham, of Richmond, was charged Tuesday in connection to the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection after federal agents reviewed his phone and found deleted photos of him inside the historic Capitol building. According to charging papers, federal agents went to Pham's Fort Bend County home last week and questioned him on his Washington D.C. visit.

The 18-year veteran of HPD said he went to the nation's capital for business reasons and attended a rally in support of President Donald Trump. He initially denied breaching the Capitol building as lawmakers certified the Electoral College votes for President-Elect Joe Biden's win. A U.S. Capitol Police officer died following the attack.

But a review of Pham's phone suggested otherwise. A special agent opened an album dedicated to deleted images and found photos of Pham posing inside the Rotunda.

A special agent warned Pham that it was illegal to lie to them and Pham then revealed more about his East Coast trip.

Pham said he traveled to the nation's capital for two nights starting Jan. 5 for his wife's cooking business. She and a friend joined him. The morning of the Capitol insurrection, he went to a Trump rally around 7 a.m. to "see history," he said, according to court documents. He denied having been apart of the large groups that flocked to D.C. for the rally or traveling with weapons.

His intent on entering the Capitol had nothing to do with violence or vandalism, Pham said.

After the rally, he separated from his wife and followed a large group of people to the Capitol. He admittedly crossed barricades, including a knocked-down fence, and continued toward the political hub. He saw police officers but ignored them, he said.

He then entered the Rotunda and stayed there for about 10 to 15 minutes to look "at the historical art on the walls," investigators wrote.

He took photos of the art and then left, Pham said. Time stamps on the images — including one that showed him posing with a Trump 2020 flag hanging from a statue of former President Gerald R. Ford — placed him in the Capitol from at least 2:50 p.m. to 2:59 p.m., according to authorities.

Selfies that Pham took in the Rotunda showed a large crowd of rioters behind him.

Charges against Pham include entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds without lawful authority and violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. The charges appear to carry a penalty of up to 18 months combined. If found to have used explosives or weapons or seriously injuring someone, the penalty would crank up to a maximum combined 15 years.

Kenneth Magidson, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas, said proving Pham's presence at the Capitol will be easy.

"The question is what else did he do besides entering the building," Magidson said. "That's probably what they're doing with all these cases. These are all questions that have to be answered."

Revelations that a veteran officer in HPD's ranks may have joined the violent mob have prompted the department to take a closer look at its employees with the FBI's help, Chief Art Acevedo said, speaking Tuesday morning from the police academy.

"We've actually pulled our background records," Acevedo said. "We're actually looking at everything, not just on this employee, but looking for any other case of anybody else that was there."

So far, HPD has found no sign that any other members of their department participated in the Capitol riots, the chief continued. No threats tied to presidential inaugration have been found in Houston either, he said.

Acevedo issued a warning to a new class of cadets that sympathizing with militias and far-right ideologies will not be tolerated.

"If anyone in this room right now believes that anyone needed to be in that Capitol building — you need to check out now," he commanded. No one left the room. "You won't survive in this department with that mindset."

Acevedo reminded the cadets that Pham is no longer a police officer. He resigned Thursday after Acevedo disclosed the day prior that the officer was under investigation and that he could face federal charges.

In a phone call with the Houston Chronicle, Pham expressed regret for being at the Capitol and that he was there to take pictures.

Doug Griffith, head of the Houston Police Officer Union, again expressed his disappointment in the accusation involving an HPD officer. Because the allegation happened outside the scope of Pham's duties as a law enforcement officer, the the union will not be providing Pham with legal help, he said.

Pham is one of more than two dozen law enforcement officers under investigation across the country for possibly participating in attempted Capitol takeover while off-duty. Offiers from agencies in Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington state are among those being scrutinized for their alleged role in the attack.

St. John Barned-Smith contributed to this report.

(c)2021 the Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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