Published July 14, 2011
Several lawmakers are questioning the Obama administration about whether the controversial "Fast and Furious" gunrunning probe may have had a cousin in Florida that resulted in guns being trafficked to Central America.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., penned a letter Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder and ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson inquiring about a program known as "Operation Castaway." Other top lawmakers are also starting to look into it, though ATF claims the program was above board and not similar to Operation Fast and Furious at all.
The Justice Department says Castaway was an anti-gun trafficking operation handled by an ATF division in Florida. It resulted last year in a slew of convictions for defendants the department claimed provided firearms linked to violent crimes around the world. But in light of questions surrounding the Fast and Furious probe out of ATF's Phoenix division, Bilirakis questioned whether Castaway bore the same suspicious hallmarks.
Fast and Furious came under fire for allegedly allowing guns to "walk" across the Mexico border in an attempt to track their migration into cartel hands. Weapons tied to the program were found at the scene of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry's murder last year.
Bilirakis expressed concern about reports that the strategy "may not have been limited to weapons trafficking to Mexico."
He asked Holder and Melson whether "similar programs included the possible trafficking of arms to dangerous criminal gangs in Honduras with the knowledge of the ATF's Tampa Field Division" and a Justice Department office, via Castaway.
Bilirakis' letter specifically asked whether the Tampa division participated in a "gun walking" scheme allowing guns to go to Honduras. He also asked whether ATF or DOJ know if any of the firearms ended up in the hands of the "notorious" MS-13 gang -- a violent gang spread across Central America, Mexico and the United States.
Court documents from the Operation Castaway takedown claim that at least five firearms from the illegal sales of the main suspect ended up later being connected to crimes, several in Puerto Rico. One pistol was recovered in Colombia after being used in a homicide.
But an ATF official told FoxNews.com that the investigation, which targeted Florida gun dealer Hugh Crumpler III, did not appear to be designed like Fast and Furious. Though Justice and ATF have not yet formally responded to Bilirakis, the official explained that ATF got involved in the Crumpler case after the fact, and was not using the investigation to track firearms sales across international lines.
"We became involved with Crumpler at the first opportunity of realizing that criminal activity was afoot," the official said. "Once we were able to put our case together, establish probable cause ... then at that point, we did so at the soonest opportunity to stop the illegal activity."
The official noted that the case is "complete," though two fugitives are still at large.
The 2010 plea agreement suggests ATF agents monitored him for just a few months before taking him in -- it does not describe any long-term effort to track firearms outside U.S. borders.
The lengthy court document states that the ATF noticed Crumpler's numerous purchases in a national firearms database -- it turned out he was later selling them at gun shows. According to the plea agreement, the ATF had an undercover agent buy from Crumpler and later observed the suspect at several gun shows in late 2009, selling to numerous buyers without a license. At one point, he told an undercover agent that he knew the firearms were making their way to Honduras.
By early 2010, ATF agents were seizing guns sold by Crumpler and within weeks confronted him, putting a stop to the operation.
Despite ATF's claims, the issue is starting to pop up on the radar screen of other lawmakers, including those leading the charge to find out more about Fast and Furious -- Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
"Senator Grassley is looking into the allegations and trying to get some firsthand information from people involved," Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine told FoxNews.com.
Bilirakis apparently was alerted to Castaway by news reports, as well as calls received by his office.
An article on Examiner.com initially claimed the Tampa division was "walking guns" to Honduras in a way similar to Fast and Furious.
Bilirakis spokesman Creighton Welch said his boss saw the report, but also received "several calls from folks who I guess you could say were familiar with the situation in Tampa."
He declined to go into further detail about where the tips were coming from.
"We're placing a lot of firearms in potentially the wrong hands," Welch said. "There are a lot of unanswered questions for a potentially very dangerous situation."
Bilirakis was joined by Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., in writing a separate letter seeking similar answers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton.
"We find it extremely troubling that the United States government would willfully allow weapons to be acquired by dangerous criminal and drug trafficking organizations, in direct contravention of our strategic and national interests," they wrote.
However, Crumpler's attorney told The Tampa Tribune that ATF agents "closely monitored" his client's activity, and he didn't think the guns made their way to Latin American criminals during the course of the probe.