ATF's flawed sting efforts in Milwaukee draw ire

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Several members of Congress are calling for an investigation into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported this week that the agency conducted a flawed sting operation in Milwaukee.

The ATF ran a storefront operation intended to bust felons for drug and gun offenses, but the newspaper reported Wednesday that no major drug dealers or gang members were taken down. Also, the store was robbed of $35,000 in merchandise, an agent's machine gun was stolen and a document listing undercover agents was left behind. On Thursday, the Journal Sentinel reported that several members of Congress were demanding answers.

The 10-month sting operation involved buying guns and drugs from felons, sometimes at such a premium that defendants bought guns from gun shops and sold them to the agents for a quick profit.

The operation resulted in charges against about 30 people, mostly for low-level counts of drug sales and gun possession. But agents had the wrong person in at least three cases, including one in which they charged a man for selling drugs to them even though he was in prison at the time as a result of a previous ATF case.

"I have never heard of those kinds of problems in an operation," said Michael Bouchard, a retired ATF agent. "Sure, small bits and pieces, but that many in one case? I have never heard of anything like that."

ATF spokesman Special Agent Robert Schmidt declined to say how much the sting operation cost.

"Our No. 1 responsibility is denying criminal access to firearms and that is what we are trying to do," Schmidt said. "It is our duty to purchase these firearms to protect the American public and citizens of Milwaukee."

The Journal Sentinel compiled its information by combing through police reports, court documents, social media and materials left behind by the ATF.

The agency has been on the defensive in recent years following its bungled gun-tracking program known as Operation Fast and Furious operation. The Arizona operation was a gun-smuggling sting operation in which agents lost track of some 1,400 guns, many of which were recovered at Mexican crime scenes.

The same House committee that investigated Fast and Furious said it would look into the Milwaukee operation.

In a letter Thursday to ATF acting Director B. Todd Jones, members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform requested key documents and investigative reports related to Fearless Distributing. They also sought answers to 22 questions, ranging from Jones' knowledge of the operation to details about who authorized various aspects of it.

The letter was signed by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.; Rep. Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.; and Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va.

"You promised to 'hit the reset button' when you became Acting Director," said the letter, which was acquired by The Associated Press. "Instead, it appears as though you have hit the 'repeat' button, as the Fearless Distributing sting was created and conducted entirely under your stewardship."

Schmidt, the ATF spokesman, declined to comment on the calls for an investigation.

The ATF store opened in Milwaukee early last year as Fearless Distributing. It offered designer clothes, athletic shoes, jewelry and drug paraphernalia for sale.

In September, one ATF agent had guns and ammunition stolen from a metal box in the back of his SUV, according to a police report. The next day, a 19-year-old man sold one gun and an unrelated handgun back to agents for $1,400, but the man wasn't arrested for two months.

The agent's machine gun and another stolen handgun are still missing.

A few weeks later, burglars broke into the Fearless store and cleaned out $35,000 worth of merchandise, including jewelry, clothes and auto parts.

When the operation was shut down a short time later, agents left behind a sensitive document that listed names, vehicles and phone numbers of undercover agents.

The building landlord, David Salkin, also said he's still owed about $15,000 because of utility bills, holes in the walls, broken doors and damage from an overflowing toilet.

The ATF told him there was less than $3,200 in damage. The agency also told him to file a claim with the federal government and warned him to stop contacting them, the Journal Sentinel reported.

Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

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