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Freed from prison nine years ago, Brandon Flood is new secretary of Pa.’s pardon board | Will Bunch

Pa. officials hope ex-inmate's turnaround story will spotlight a new state focus on redemption.

Brandon Flood, the new director of the State Board of Pardons, shown here in Lt. Gov. John Fetterman's office at the Capital Building in Harrisburg, PA, April 1, 2019. Flood is a former inmate.
Brandon Flood, the new director of the State Board of Pardons, shown here in Lt. Gov. John Fetterman's office at the Capital Building in Harrisburg, PA, April 1, 2019. Flood is a former inmate.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

This column will probably come as something of a shock to all the people in Harrisburg who only know Brandon Flood – a bow-tied, bespectacled policy wonk with sartorial flair – as the persona that he laughingly calls “Urkel Brandon,” in a homage to one of TV’s most famous nerds.

Flood, now 36, readily admits most folks who know him from nearly a decade as a legislative aide or lobbyist will be shocked to learn of his past that includes boot camp for juvenile offenders, a physical scuffle with Harrisburg’s then-police chief, and finally felony convictions and two lengthy prison stints for dealing crack cocaine and carrying an unlicensed gun.

But starting last week, Flood’s turnaround saga has become a talking point and a mission statement for his new job as secretary of the five-member Pennsylvania Board of Pardons – anchoring one leg of a broader push in Harrisburg for criminal justice reform, aimed at giving more convicted felons a chance for clemency or to wipe their slate clean with a pardon.

What makes Flood’s appointment even more remarkable is that – to steal a phrase from TV infomercial lore – he’s not just Pennsylvania’s new top pardons administrator, he’s also a client. Gov. Wolf signed off on Flood’s own board-approved pardon, erasing his past convictions, just a few weeks before Flood stepped in as secretary.

Taking a break last Monday during his first day on the job for a sit-down interview, the soft-spoken Flood said a number of new initiatives – to not only call attention to Pennsylvania’s pardon process but also to make it easier to apply for one – will hopefully show former inmates that the state is more focused on rewarding good post-prison behavior.

“If they see this [a pardon] as a viable option, they will continue to be productive citizens,” Flood said, who plans to use his own story as a powerful example of that. “They will see there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Flood’s hiring was the brainchild of Pennsylvania’s new lieutenant governor, John Fetterman. Policy-oriented, progressive and looking for areas where he can make a difference in the oft-neglected No. 2 slot, the burly, black-shirted Braddock ex-mayor has honed in on his designated role as chairman of the Board of Pardons.

Fetterman told me that Flood is “a singularly unique person to have in order help remake the process ... which is only the only remedy for anyone in Pennsylvania who wants to move forward with their lives in this way.”

Flood’s arrival helps mark the beginning of one era in Pennsylvania criminal justice and arguably the end of another. It was exactly 25 years ago that a convicted murderer named Reginald McFadden was granted his freedom by a Board of Pardons led by then-Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, who was also running for governor that year. McFadden almost immediately killed two people and raped a third, and the case, with its overtones of the infamous Willie Horton affair, was cited by experts as a reason for Singel’s defeat that fall.

The political fallout dramatically changed Pennsylvania’s pardon math. Critics (including the man Fetterman ousted in a 2018 primary, ex-Lt. Gov. Mike Stack) came to say that the state’s pardon system was “broken” in an era of skyrocketing mass incarceration. Commutations of life sentences ground to a virtual halt, post-McFadden, while pardons for lesser crimes slowed as long backlogs and a confusing process discouraged applicants.

Brandon Flood doesn’t need any schooling on the era of harsh justice in Pennsylvania. He was on the front lines. Growing up in Harrisburg, Flood said he and some buddies started selling marijuana as a way to make a quick buck or two when he was just 13, and within a couple of years he’d moved on to dealing crack cocaine when the highly addictive rock was at its peak.

His story crushes many of the cliches about young urban crime – especially the one about absent fathers. Flood’s father (who died in 2010) was an ex-military man and college-educated government accountant raising him and two sisters as a single dad. A self-described “iconoclast,” Flood thinks he turned to the street to rebel against his straight-arrow upbringing.

“I was trying to take the easy route,” he said of his youthful forays into drug dealing, although his first arrest at age 15 had nothing to do with dope. Police were making a habit of stopping by Harrisburg’s John Harris High School – even the then-chief Charles Kellar. Flood says Kellar demanded that the then-teen remove his coat, but he refused and ended up in a tussle with the lawman, taken to the police station and booked.

Flood’s problems with the law accelerated. He did the state’s four-month boot camp and ultimately earned his high school degree at the Abraxas youth-detention program in Marienville, Pa. He was arrested for dealing drugs at 18, turned down a plea deal and sent away for four years – only to get arrested again at 22 for the unlicensed firearm as well for selling crack again.

It was just as hard to reconcile the mild-mannered accountant’s son with the street life then as it is now. “When I was involved in criminal activity, even some of the addicts – in the throes of their addiction – would say to me, ‘Why are you out here?’" Flood recalled. Nonetheless, with his two adult felony convictions by the age of 22, his mindset as he ended up an inmate at the state correctional facility in Chester was that he’d chosen his life’s career: Criminal.

Instead, Flood credits the atmosphere at the Chester site -- with college-level courses and a spirit of reform advocacy -- with helping the “iconoclast” to pull a complete 180-degree turn during his final five years of incarceration, Once shy, he found a voice moderating events on criminal-justice issues and editing the prison newsletter. He said he gained special inspiration from reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Flood explained that the book’s power wasn’t so much spiritual as “just understanding how systems work and understanding where the true levers of power are located.” That meant returning to Harrisburg after his freedom and looking toward a career in politics. Like for so many returning prisoners, it wasn’t easy at first. He said the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) interviewed him three times before getting cold feet over the gun charge on his record.

But he was able to get work as a legislative aide with help from two Philadelphia then-lawmakers, Frank Oliver Sr. and Vanessa Lowery Brown, who eventually helped make Flood legislative director of the Pennsylvania Legislature Black Caucus. He later did lobbying work for the SEIU labor union and the NAACP, making friends all over the capitol. One was former pardons secretary Mavis Nimoh -- who badgered Flood to apply for one himself.

Like other Pennsylvanians, Flood – despite his newfound insider status – found the pardon process hard to navigate. He said he screwed up the application the first time. Ultimately, the process – including the public review by the full board last fall – took about three years until it was approved and signed by Wolf in early March.

By then, Flood was already talking to the new lieutenant governor Fetterman about taking over as secretary, which means overseeing the pardon board’s day-to-day operations and its small staff of five people. Flood -- today a father with two sons of his own -- is making $89,000 a year in the position.

For Fetterman, who hails his close working relationship with Wolf on criminal justice reform, Flood’s hiring is symbolic of both down-to-earth pardon reforms -- a $63 application fee was eliminated last month, and the board is looking to digitize the application process and possibly open satellite offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and eventually elsewhere -- and a bold new attitude. In December, Wolf granted board-recommended clemency to three life-sentenced inmates -- after only signing two in his first 47 months in office.

Fetterman, who’s currently on an all-67-county tour to discuss the possibility of legalizing marijuana, also said he wants a task force to look at granting widespread pardons for past pot-related convictions. “These are simple charges that are damning people’s career possibilities,” he said.

What the lieutenant governor and Flood are suggesting is not so much a complete reversal from the post-McFadden clampdown as creating more chances and more incentives for more Pennsylvanians to seek state-sanctioned redemption. “People shouldn’t look at this as opening the floodgate, no pun intended,” Flood said. He cited his good working relationship with Pennsylvania’s victim advocate, Jennifer Storm.

But Flood also expressed his hope that a more accessible pardon process could help Pennsylvania show the rest of the nation a pathway toward creating more comeback stories like his own. “We need to be smarter on crime – on what works as opposed to what makes for a better soundbite,” he said. “The climate is certainly ripe for that.”