Patrick J. Cunningham, the chief of the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s office criminal division, resigned yesterday, the latest casualty of the Fast and Furious gun-walking scandal.
Cunningham announced his intention to step down two weeks ago and finished his last day on Monday, said Bill Solomon, an Arizona Assistant U.S. Attorney and acting public affairs officer. Cunningham will go into private practice, Solomon said.
Cunningham was at the center of a damaging episode in the Justice Department’s handling of the aftermath of the flawed gun-tracing operation, in which some 2000 weapons purchased by straw buyers in the U.S. crossed the Mexican border into the hands of drug cartels. Two of those weapons were found at the scene of a shootout in Arizona that killed a border patrol agent.
The Arizona criminal division chief gave inaccurate information about the investigation to then-U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke. The bad information then made its way into a Feb. 4, 2011 letter to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) that the Justice Department later had to withdraw.
The Feb. 4, 2011 letter stated wrongly that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which ran the gun probe overseen by Arizona prosecutors, had never intentionally allowed guns to cross the border or knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to suspicious straw buyers. Burke had repeatedly assured senior Justice Department leaders of the information. But when the information turned out to be wrong, congressional Republicans cited the episode to demand accountability from top Justice Department officials for Fast and Furious.
Grassley has even demanded that Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who oversees the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, resign.
Burke told investigators for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he had based his information on the assurances of Cunningham, according to a report by the panel’s minority Democrats released today. Cunningham “adamantly denied” that so-called gun walking over the border had occurred, Burke said, according to the report.
Burke was forced to resign in August as controversy mounted.
House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) announced he would subpoena Cunningham to testify about the gun-running investigation, after Cunningham canceled his scheduled Jan. 17 voluntary interview with the panel. Cunningham’s attorney notified Issa that Cunningham would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid testifying. The attorney, Tobin J. Romero, wrote to Issa: “If, as you claim, Department officials have blamed my client, they have blamed him unfairly.”
Romero did not mention in his Jan. 19 letter that Cunningham was resigning.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Restaino will fill Cunningham’s position as criminal division chief, Solomon told Main Justice. Restaino was involved in the prosecution of former Arizona Rep. Richard G. Renzi on corruption charges.
Cunningham has spent 32 years in government service, including as an Army JAG officer and state prosecutor, according to his attorney’s letter to Issa. He rejoined the U.S. Attorney’s office in Phoenix in 2010.