Issa threatens ATF with contempt charges for withholding documents

The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee wants to know how two weapons used as bait in a federal law enforcement sting operation ended up near the body of a U.S. Border Patrol agent killed in Arizona last year. But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is not cooperating with this and other aspects of the lawmaker’s investigation.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), therefore, threatened Wednesday to begin contempt proceedings against the ATF, for not providing documents to his committee.

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Issa subpoenaed the ATF for information pertaining to two of its gun-trafficking sting operations nearly three weeks ago, after first requesting the documents last month.

But the ATF, in a letter from Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, said it was not planning to hand over the documents because Project Gunrunner and Operation Fast and Furious were involved in ongoing investigations. 

Issa, in a letter to acting director Kenneth Melson on Wednesday, blasted the ATF for not responding to his April 13 deadline for documents, saying that if the agency continued to fail to cooperate with the committee’s subpoena he was prepared to pursue contempt proceedings, which could ultimately result in the formation of a grand jury or the issuance of fines, or even jail time.

“Efforts by the Department of Justice and ATF to stonewall the committee in its investigation by erroneously, but matter-of-factly, citing an internal department policy as a preventative measure for denying access to documents have only enhanced suspicions that such officials have played a role in reckless decisions that have put lives at risk,” Issa said in the letter. 

“The committee continues to pursue this matter vigorously, in part, because concerned individuals have indicated they do not have confidence in the department’s ability to review the actions of its own top officials,” Issa said.

The committee’s ranking Democrat rejected Issa’s move, saying that DOJ has informed Issa on several occasions that the release of some of the requested documents would jeopardize ongoing investigations it is conducting, including one involving murder and international narcotics traffickers that resulted in a 53 count indictment of about 20 people.

“Our committee has a responsibility to investigate allegations of waste, fraud and abuse,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.) said in a statement. “However, despite my repeated requests, Chairman Issa has refused to meet with the Department of Justice to ensure that his actions do not compromise ongoing investigations and prosecutions, including a trial of 20 individuals that is scheduled to begin in June.”

Issa’s probe into the gun trafficking programs began shortly after officials revealed that straw purchases of high-powered guns were being made, and that the guns were then sold to suspected drug cartel and gang members in an effort to track and dismantle their gun-running network. But, officials said, some of the guns were lost and ended up being used in crimes.

Two of the weapons, both AK-47 assault rifles, were found near the body of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry last year after he was killed in Arizona.

Terry was killed by an AK-47 while investigating illegal border activity. Officials said ballistic tests have shown that neither of the two weapons recovered at the scene was the one used to kill Terry.

Issa attached several documents to his letter that he says show the ATF and Justice Department “were aware that straw purchasers were consistently and illegally buying assault rifles and other weapons, but that they also failed to prevent their disappearance.”

At the prodding of Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder has asked the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General to investigate Operation Gun Runner to determine if it was poorly conceived or managed.

This story was updated at 4:45 p.m.