Bloomberg News

Firearms Agency Chief Leaves After Criticism on Gun Program

August 30, 2011

(Updates with comment from Representative Elijah Cummings starting in ninth paragraph.)

Aug. 30 (Bloomberg) -- The acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. attorney in Arizona are leaving their jobs after lawmakers criticized a program that allowed illegal gun purchases in the U.S. in an effort to link the weapons to Mexican drug cartels.

The firearms chief, Kenneth Melson, will become a senior adviser on forensic science in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, and the U.S. attorney, Dennis Burke, is resigning, said Attorney General Eric Holder in statements released today. The ATF ran the gun operation and the U.S. attorney’s office was involved.

The U.S. attorney for Minnesota, B. Todd Jones, will take over as acting chief of the firearms agency, Holder said. He didn’t explain the reason for the personnel changes.

Jones “will be a strong and steady influence guiding ATF in fulfilling its mission of combating violent crime by enforcing federal criminal laws and regulations in the firearms and explosives industries,” Holder said.

The ATF gun operation, called Fast and Furious, has been the subject of a congressional investigation. Two of about 2,000 guns that ATF allowed to be carried away were found at the scene of the December 2010 murder of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in Arizona, according to a report released in June by Republican Darrell Issa, of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Straw Buyers

The operation sought to show a connection between straw buyers of assault-style weapons in the U.S. and Mexican drug trafficking organizations working on both sides of the border, according to the report.

The Justice Department also told Issa’s committee that a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona, Emory Hurley, is being reassigned, said Becca Watkins, a spokeswoman for the committee. Hurley was described in the congressional report as the “lead prosecutor” in the gun operation. An Obama administration official who wasn’t authorized to publicly discuss the matter confirmed the reassignment.

Melson told congressional investigators in a July 4 interview that he didn’t review documents related to the program until after it became a subject of public controversy and that Justice Department officials blocked his attempts to share information with members of Congress, according to a summary of the interview released by Issa and Grassley.

’Fresh Leadership’

Melson and Burke told congressional investigators that mistakes were made in the gun operation, said Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the government reform panel, in a statement.

“Fresh leadership will allow ATF to move forward and focus on its vital mission of enforcing our nation’s gun laws,” Cummings said.

Issa said in a statement that his committee “will continue its investigation to ensure that blame isn’t offloaded on just a few individuals for a matter that involved much higher levels of the Justice Department.”

Melson may be a “scapegoat for a much larger problem,” Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.

“Other senior officials at DOJ may have been involved in this deadly operation,” Smith said. “Congress will not ignore an agency so out of control that its decisions and operations cost American lives.”

Inspector General Investigates

Holder has said he asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate the program.

Jones, a former U.S. Marine Corps judge advocate and assistant U.S. attorney, first served as the chief federal prosecutor in Minnesota during the Clinton administration and was nominated for the job a second time by President Barack Obama in 2009.

ATF has had no permanent director since the job became subject to Senate confirmation in 2006. The Senate hasn’t acted on Obama’s nominee, Andrew Traver, the head of the ATF’s Chicago office, who is opposed by the National Rifle Association.

--Editors: Justin Blum, Joe Sobczyk

To contact the reporter on this story: Seth Stern in Washington at sstern14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net


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