MILWAUKEE — Calling the ATF’s tactics appalling, alarming, disturbing and “almost unimaginable,” members of Congress this week slammed the agency for how it conducted storefront stings across the nation, and renewed their demand for answers.
A sharply worded letter is the latest salvo from Congress to U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Director B. Todd Jones regarding the undercover operations.
Members of both parties have demanded explanations from the agency and Jones since last January, when a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation exposed a series of foul-ups and failures in an ATF sting in Milwaukee called Operation Fearless.
Thursday’s letter — signed by lawmakers who led the congressional probe into the agency’s flawed Fast and Furious operation in Arizona — follows an investigation published by the Journal Sentinel in December that detailed how the ATF used rogue tactics in storefront stings across the nation, from Portland, Ore., to Pensacola, Fla.
“Much as in operation Fast and Furious and Operation Fearless, it appears that poor management was the norm in these other storefront operations,” the letter said.
The letter was signed by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Rep. Darrell E. Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the chamber’s head investigative panel; and Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who signed previous letters to ATF on the stings, was mistakenly left off this one.
The Journal Sentinel found that the ATF used mentally disabled people to promote their operations in at least five cities — including paying one to get a tattoo on his neck advertising their storefront — and later had them charged them with gun and drug crimes. The tattoo was of a giant squid smoking a joint.
In Milwaukee, three guns belonging to the case’s lead undercover agent, including a machine gun, were stolen. The machine gun remains missing.
Across the country, agents put stings near schools and churches, increasing arrest numbers and penalties — and attracting juveniles with free video games and alcohol. They paid so much for guns and other goods that in some cities the stings 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 all of these cases, ATF apparently wasted taxpayer dollars on purchases,” the lawmakers wrote, citing two examples detailed in the Journal Sentinel’s reporting, including one where a defendant bought a gun at the store for ”$700 and sold it to undercover agents hours later for $2,000.
“Operations like this raise questions as to whether ATF was manufacturing crime that would not have otherwise occurred, effectively increasing the overall crime rates in the neighborhoods where the storefronts were located,” the letter said.
The lawmakers said they were particularly disturbed by the agency’s placement of stings near schools.
“It is almost unimaginable that any law enforcement agency would recklessly endanger children in this way — particularly an agency that is tasked with responding to school shootings,” the letter said.
The lawmakers noted that the Journal Sentinel investigation showed that the ATF did not follow its own policy on storefronts. That policy states the agency should participate in such operations only if the potential defendants “are active criminals worthy of federal interest.”
“We are appalled by ATF agents’ lack of judgment in recruiting juveniles and developmentally disabled individuals,” the lawmakers wrote.
Also receiving copies of Thursday’s letter were U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz and other members of Congress.
ATF spokeswoman Ginger Colbrunv did not respond for comment on the letter Thursday. Earlier, she said the agency enacted reforms after the failures of the Milwaukee sting and that the national problems identified by the Journal Sentinel happened before those changes were made.
She also said the ATF created a best practices manual on storefronts in response to the Milwaukee operation, telling agents not to pay inflated prices for guns and to come up with plans in case armed felons try to leave the stings — as happened several times, according to the Journal Sentinel investigation.
The agency has failed to answer many of the questions sent by congressional members starting nearly a year ago.
The letter sent Thursday includes a batch of new questions and demands a response by Jan. 16. Such deadlines have been routinely ignored by Jones and the ATF in the past.
In a briefing with congressional staffers last April, ATF officials did not dispute any of the Journal Sentinel’s findings regarding the Milwaukee operation, but indicated that the problems found in Milwaukee were isolated.
Citing an earlier letter, the congressional members wrote “we pointed out that ATF’s failure to be forthcoming with information was a serious source of concern. In addition to creating significant image problems for an agency charged with upholding public trust, it is detrimental to the efforts of the vast majority of ATF agents and managers who are acting ethically and responsibly.”
In that April meeting, ATF officials also told congressional members that personnel investigations were underway and a “disciplinary action was pending” against Bernard “B.J.” Zapor, special agent in charge of the St. Paul Field Division, which oversees Milwaukee, according to the letter sent Thursday.
Before the Journal Sentinel investigation was published, Zapor was promoted by Jones, who as the former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota worked with Zapor.
Zapor was later transferred back to being in charge of a field division, taking over the Phoenix office, where Operation Fast and Furious was conducted.
“The continued lack of accountability at ATF is disturbing,” the letter says.
U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., sent letters last month critical of the ATF operations and seeking further investigation.
Horowitz, the inspector general, already is investigating the ATF’s Milwaukee storefront sting, as part of a review of reforms promised by the agency after the disastrous Operation Fast and Furious, in which agents watched as criminals obtained thousands of guns, many which ended up at crime scenes in Mexico.
The Department of Justice issued a statement saying Horowitz “can and should” widen his probe to include the Journal Sentinel’s new findings. The ATF also asked Horowitz to expand his investigation.
Horowitz has not indicated if he will widen his investigation to include storefront stings in cities other than Milwaukee. His spokesman did not return a call for comment Thursday.
After the Journal Sentinel investigation in December, The Arc, a national disability rights group, sent a searing letter to Holder questioning how the ATF used mentally disabled people and then charged them with crimes.
In a subsequent meeting with Arc officials, ATF leaders defended the operations but agreed to consider new training to avoid it happening in the future.