Two key Republicans are warning the Department of Justice not to make the acting Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Kenneth Melson the “fall guy” for mistakes made in a controversial gun smuggling program.
Investigators from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Monday interviewed Melson about ATF’s Fast and Furious gun operation, according to a letter by the Committee Chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking GOP member.
The two said that Melson told investigators that because of poor communication among agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Agency and FBI, one federal agency may have hired as informants many drug-trafficking suspects targeted by another federal law enforcement agency.
They said that Melson also suggested that high-level Justice Department officials knew about the operation’s blunders but kept that information from Congress and that ATF officials were prohibited from discussing the probe with congressional investigators.
The revelations come from a letter in which the congressmen relayed their interpretation of Melson’s testimony and rebuked the department for not providing investigators with the “full story.”
“The evidence we have gathered raises the disturbing possibility that the Justice Department not only allowed criminals to smuggle weapons but that taxpayer dollars from other agencies may have financed those engaging in such activities,” the congressmen wrote in the letter. “Knowing what we know so far, we believe it would be inappropriate to make Mr. Melson the fall guy in an attempt to prevent further congressional oversight.”
The Justice Department did not immediately return requests for comment.
Melson reportedly told investigators that he reviewed hundreds of documents and learned of the other agencies’ involvement shortly after the public controversy surrounding Fast and Furious began. He said he relayed that knowledge in April 2011 to the DOJ Acting Inspector General Cynthia A. Schnedar and to Deputy Attorney General James Cole in June 2011.
“By his account, he was sick to his stomach when he obtained those documents and learned the full story,” Issa and Grassley wrote.
Melson told them that he and ATF’s senior leadership moved to reassign the managers involved in Fast and Furious after reading those documents, but DOJ officials directed him not to answer congressional inquiries regarding the reason for those reassignments.
Instead, the department took direct control over responding to Congress and providing documents, and Issa and Grassley wrote that much of the heat Melson and the ATF have taken over the operation in recent weeks could have been avoided had the DOJ allowed them to be more forthcoming.
“The result is that Congress only got the parts of the story that the Department wanted us to hear,” the congressmen wrote. “If his account is accurate, then ATF leadership appears to have been effectively muzzled while the DOJ sent over false denials and buried its head in the sand. That approach distorted the truth and obstructed our investigation.”
The letter also alleged that department officials had not told Melson he could appear before the committee with his own personal counsel rather than with DOJ lawyers that would have represented the department’s interests.
Melson, who was originally scheduled to appear on July 13 with DOJ counsel, chose to be interviewed earlier and with his own lawyer, Richard Cullen of McGuireWoods LLP, according to the letter.
For the past few months, Issa and Grassley have led an investigation into Fast and Furious, an operation in which ATF agents allowed the sale of firearms to straw purchasers for drug cartels and then allowed them to be trafficked into Mexico – a violation of federal law.
Two guns from the operation were also recovered at the scene of a shootout between Border Patrol agents and Mexican bandits near Rio Rico, Ariz., that ended in the death of agent Brian A. Terry.