DOJ unveils new ethics rules for ATF agents

The Justice Department on Wednesday unveiled new ethics rules for federal agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

ATF employees will now be prohibited from having a financial interest in companies that sell alcohol, tobacco, firearms, or explosives, according to the DOJ, which has jurisdiction over the bureau.

The new rules are intended to prevent any conflicts of interest that may arise from agents in their line of work, according to a notice in the Federal Register.

"Prohibiting ATF employees from having financial interests in entities that are regulated or inspected by or closely connected to the work of ATF is important for three reasons," the DOJ said.

"First, to maintain ATF's appearance of impartiality and objectivity in the execution of its regulatory and law enforcement functions. Second, to eliminate a regulated entity's concern that sensitive information provided to ATF might be misused for private gain,” the notice continued. “And third to avoid the large-scale recusal of employees from official matters resulting in an inability of ATF to fulfill its mission."

The new ethics guidelines come as Republicans have criticized the ATF after a number of failed sting operations and over the controversial Fast and Furious program, where federal agents lost track of guns that they sold to Mexican cartels.

The Justice Department said the new ethics rules are intended to close a loophole, and that ATF agents already effectively follow the rules.

The Treasury Department instituted similar rules in 1995, when it had control of ATF. But the Justice Department never officially adopted those rules when it gained jurisdiction over the bureau.

"Now that ATF is part of DOJ, DOJ has determined that continuing to prohibit ATF employees from having financial interests in the alcohol, tobacco, firearms, or explosives industries is necessary for successful implementation of its ethics program," the agency wrote.

The rules go into effect immediately.