Lawmakers call for probe into 'botched' ATF sting in Milwaukee

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Several members of Congress are calling for an investigation into an embarrassing series of blunders made by the Milwaukee arm of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives after a newspaper reported this week that the agency conducted a months-long undercover operation that cost taxpayers thousands of dollars and netted very few results.

“I am intent on getting to the bottom of the botched ATF sting in Milwaukee,” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told Thursday night.

Sensenbrenner along with Sen. Charles Grassley, and Reps. Darrell Issa and Robert Goodlatte, have sent a letter to Acting ATF Director Todd Jones asking the agency to look into allegations reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The newspaper claims that the agency conducted a deeply flawed sting operation that resulted in a still-missing machine gun being taken from an agent’s car, thousands of taxpayer dollars being lost in merchandise and angry residents saying that ATF officials reintroduced crime into their neighborhood. The operation comes on the heels of the botched Operation Fast and Furious anti-gun trafficking program.

“The mismanaged operation included numerous careless and costly mistakes,” Sensenbrenner told in a written statement. “Along with my colleagues, I am asking the ATF what happened in Milwaukee and who will be held accountable. I want to know how these glaring blunders could happen. How did ATF—for the second time that we know of—put guns in the hands of dangerous criminals?”

According to the newspaper, the ATF created a phony storefront, named it Fearless Distributing, staffed it with undercover agents and created a Facebook page that lured people to the location all under the guise of selling clothes and shoes. The ATF agents handed out business cards with a logo similar to the one from the movie “The Expendables” with the words “buy, sell or trade” on them. Once the store was up and running, agents spread the word that Fearless Distributing was willing to buy guns and drugs.

Part of the problem, the newspaper alleges, is that agents spent taxpayer money to buy guns from people at twice the street value. One ATF agent paid more than $1,200 for a gun that usually sells for $400-$700.

Some say the most serious problem involves missing guns. On Sept. 13, 2012, three weapons – including an M-4 automatic rifle – were stolen from an agent’s parked car. The very next day one of the weapons -- as well as another unrelated one -- were sold back to agents for $1,400. Still missing is the M-4 and Smith & Wesson 9mm.

"The Journal Sentinel story reads more like an accounting of the Keystone Cops instead of a federal law enforcement agency," Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. "I'll be asking the ATF questions because if the operation was handled as badly as it was reported, it puts yet another major stain on the agency."

The list of problems continues.

The owner of the property where the phony ATF shop was set up asked the ATF to pay him $15,000 in damages but the agency said no. The newspaper claims an attorney for the ATF bullied the owner and threatened to slap him with harassment charges if he continued to ask for reimbursement.

“If these reports are accurate, your ability to provide this leadership is in serious doubt,” the letter from the congressional members to the acting head of the ATF said. “You promised to ‘hit the reset button’ when you became acting director. Instead, it appears as though you have hit the ‘repeat’ button, as the Fearless Distributing sting was created and conducted entirely under your stewardship.’”

An official at the ATF strongly refuted the paper’s claims to and said the operation resulted in 36 people being arrested. While admitting to making “some mistakes,” the official said the agency takes issue with the accusations that agents corrupted the neighborhood, bullied the owner of the property and made other misguided decisions.

The official also called comparisons between the Milwaukee sting and Operation Fast and Furious –   the 2009 failed attempt to stem gun smuggling along the U.S.-Mexican border – unfair.