The poisonous rift between the Nevada U.S. Attorney’s office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has led to a dozen or more instances in which “violent criminals either walked free or faced lighter state sentences,” a Reno newspaper has reported after an exhaustive investigation.
The schism between Nevada federal prosecutors and the ATF, which goes back to at least 2009, has created a situation in which suspects who could have been prosecuted and likely convicted on serious charges involving drugs, guns or both have caught lucky breaks that even the most ingenious defense lawyers would have been hard pressed to win for their clients.
That, at least, is the scenario that emerges from a probe by The Reno Gazette-Journal, whose latest report on the mess was published on Tuesday.
The article, written by Martha Bellisle, said the newspaper has just acquired a new batch of documents pertaining to eight cases in which ATF agents arrested “violent offenders who were committing serious felonies, including buying or selling guns and drugs.” But because of the bureaucratic impasse, “some of the suspects were prosecuted on the local level for lesser charges than they could’ve faced on the federal level.” And others simply went free “without being charged anywhere.”
Although many questions remain unanswered, the Gazette-Journal article recounts instances in which ATF agents seemed to have open-and-shut cases against dangerous offenders, only to see the cases stalled or tossed out altogether by the U.S. Attorney’s office. One case involved Ronald Eugene Jackson of the Reno area, who was found with a cache of firearms last year. Since Jackson had earlier pleaded guilty to a domestic violence misdemeanor, and had agreed to give up any right to possess firearms as part of the plea deal, the ATF seemed to have an ironclad weapons-possession case against him — yet the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to prosecute.
The latest fumbles, on top of several earlier ones, have so demoralized Reno-based ATF agents that many of them transferred to new locales, the newspaper reported.
The ATF has had more than its share of embarrassments of late, most notably the unfortunate gun-tracking operation in neighboring Arizona known as Fast and Furious. The Nevada squabble might have gotten little attention outside the Southwest, had it not caught the attention of Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, as Main Justice noted in September.
The senator, who was so angered over the Fast and Furious episode that he called for the resignation of Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, the Criminal Division chief, has complained to Nevada U.S. Attorney Dan Bogden and Acting ATF Director B. Todd Jones. Sen. Dan Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei, both Nevada Republicans, have said they will seek answers through the Senate and House judiciary committees, the Reno newspaper reported.
While the inter-agency fight goes on, the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration are trying to patch up the enforcement gap, as Main Justice reported recently.
Turf battles between federal agencies, and between federal and local lawmen, are nothing new. The Nevada feud seems to have its roots in the ATF’s refusal to participate in a task force of the U.S. Attorney’s office that was focusing on cases that were generated by local law enforcement.
Grassley, who has not hesitated to denounce the DOJ on the Senate floor, has given the disputants until Thursday to answer his questions. Meanwhile, the Nevada U.S. Attorney’s office and ATF people in the state have referred questions to DOJ headquarters, which is looking into the breakdown.