MILWAUKEE — Two congressional committees are preparing to hold hearings on botched ATF undercover storefront stings in Milwaukee and across the country, as bipartisan scrutiny of the federal law enforcement agency’s tactics intensifies.
Separate hearings are being planned in subcommittees of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and House Judiciary Committee, according to a member of both committees and a congressional staffer.
In addition, staff for the Oversight Committee is doing its own investigation on tactics employed by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Separately, the Justice Department’s inspector general is preparing to widen his own ongoing investigation into problems in the ATF stings uncovered by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
After the Journal Sentinel investigation exposed numerous problems in a sting in Milwaukee, ATF leaders met with congressional staffers and “were adamant” it was an isolated incident, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a member of the Oversight Committee, said in an interview.
The Journal Sentinel later exposed similar problems in stings from Pensacola, Fla., to Portland, Ore.
“I feel misled,” said Chaffetz, chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security, who is planning to hold at least one hearing on the storefront stings. “This has risen to a level of concern that it demands real answers from the senior-most people at ATF and the Department of Justice.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations, also plans to hold a hearing on the ATF stings, spokesman Ben Miller said Thursday. No date has been set, but Sensenbrenner is hoping to hold it next month. It is not clear yet who will testify.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., has asked Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz to expand his investigation into storefront stings, saying the ATF’s operations were “totally inexcusable.”
Horowitz already is investigating the Milwaukee sting as part of a review of reforms enacted after the ATF’s disastrous Operation Fast and Furious, where agents watched as criminals obtained thousands of guns, many which ended up at crime scenes in Mexico.
Horowitz testified Wednesday that he is weighing how to investigate the storefront stings.
“We are looking at those issues because there are so many,” Horowitz told the House Oversight Committee. “We are trying to get our arms around what is out there. ... We will inform the committee of what steps we are going to take in light of this.”
The Journal Sentinel investigation found the ATF used mentally disabled people to promote operations and then arrested them for their work; opened storefronts close to schools and churches, increasing arrest numbers and penalties; and attracted juveniles with free video games and alcohol.
In Portland, where an undercover smoke shop was across from a school, an agent persuaded and paid two 19-year-olds — one who has a low IQ — to get tattoos on their necks of the store logo to promote the operation.
“What right-minded adult sits up and says, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a good idea?’ Come on. Have some common sense along the way,” Chaffetz said. “No doubt the work is difficult and you are diving in deep with nefarious characters, but there needs to be a little adult supervision in the room.”
Agents also allowed armed felons to leave the stores and paid so much for guns and other goods that it encouraged burglaries. In some cases, defendants bought guns at stores such as Gander Mountain and sold them to undercover agents hours later for more than double what they paid.
In Milwaukee, three guns belonging to the case’s lead undercover agent, including a machine gun, were stolen. The machine gun remains missing, Milwaukee police said.
Chaffetz said he is troubled by the sting tactics coming after Fast and Furious.
“The fact that we are having the same type of problem at ATF is very disconcerting, to say the least,” Chaffetz said. “The Obama administration is going to have to demonstrate they are making serious reforms and changes. They have to do difficult things to catch the bad guys, but this type of activity is just not acceptable.”
U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., said considering the high rates of gun violence, the ATF needs the resources to effectively keep illegal weapons off the streets but called the agency’s tactics used in Albuquerque and elsewhere “incredibly troubling.”
“I have serious concerns about how this program was implemented,” she said in a statement to the Journal Sentinel. “And, as a member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, (I) will be diligent in reviewing all of the facts and asking tough questions to determine what reforms to ATF procedures may be necessary.”
Last week, a trio of powerful congressmen, including U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the Oversight Committee, wrote a letter to ATF Director B. Todd Jones calling the agency’s tactics appalling, alarming, disturbing and “almost unimaginable.” They demanded ATF answer questions about the storefront stings.
Following the Journal Sentinel investigation in December, The Arc, a national disability rights group, sent a searing letter to Attorney General Eric Holder questioning how the ATF used mentally disabled people and then charged them.
In a subsequent meeting with Arc officials, ATF leaders defended the operations but agreed to consider new training to avoid such actions in the future.