The ATF isn't restrained by oversight. It's hardly restrained at all. It's made a business of fake stash house sting operations, where downtrodden suckers looking for cash are persuaded to rob a ficitonal stash house of its fictional drugs. The problem is the government then bases its charges on the amount of nonexistent drugs sting victims were told the fake stash house contained. In no sting operation was the "amount" of drugs lower than 5 kilograms -- the amount needed to trigger a 20-year minimum sentence.
Why is the ATF involved? Because every sting operation involves fictional armed guards, necessitating the use of illegally-obtained weapons by sting victims. Bang. More charges with lengthy minimum sentences.
When not pushing people into fake robberies, the ATF regulates alcohol, tobacco, and firearms. (Also explosives, but it makes the well-known acronym more than a bit clumsy.) To facilitate maximum price gouging by state governments, the ATF tries to break up untaxed cigarette sales.
It's this simple work that has propelled an accountability-free explosion in the ATF, most of it traced back to a single office in Bristol, Virginia, fronted by a quasi-legitimate tobacco distributor. From there, an appalling amount of illegal activity was participated in by ATF agents and officials.
Matt Apuzzo has put together an amazing story for the New York Times, sourced from interviews and public records requests -- one that will cause your jaw to drop lower the further you scroll down the page. As Apuzzo puts it, the operation began as a way to bust black-market cigarette sales. It ended up as something much more sinister: an ATF slush fund that mixed public and private money with zero oversight or statutory authority. If any agent needed anything -- from vending machines with cameras in them to credit cards for unquestioned expenses -- they went to Bristol. It was done in the government's name, but plenty of agents personally profited from the operation.
The spending was not limited to investigative expenses. Two informants made $6 million each. One agent steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate, electronics and money to his church and his children’s sports teams, records show.
Federal law prohibits mixing government and private money. The A.T.F. now acknowledges it can point to no legal justification for the scheme. But far from reining in the spending, records show that supervisors at headquarters encouraged it by steering agents from around the country to Bristol.
As the money mixed, the spending increased. ATF officials in Washington sent agents to Bristol to obtain equipment, supplies, and spending money in order to bypass red tape. So many vehicles were requisitioned through Bristol the office had to set up its own leasing company. Hotel bills and gas alone ran nearly $25,000 a month. And yet, the DOJ never looked into the ATF operation or its incredible amount of spending. With public and private funds overlapping, it would have been a nightmare to audit. How much of a nightmare, no one knows… because no one ever tried. Unbelievably, the "accounting" for the ATF's oversight-less, mixed cash operation was left to a single bookkeeper using Quickbooks on her own computer.
As part of the sting, two informants helped pad the ATF's secret account by purchasing cigarettes directly from US Tobacco at $3 a carton and selling them back to the ATF for $17 a carton. Rather than this being a losing proposition for the ATF, the difference in prices allowed the ATF to dump another half-million into its secret Bristol account.
The ATF office was basically housing gangsters with hearts of ill-gotten gold at this point.
[ATF agent Thomas] Lesnak said he set the prices, allowing his informants “customary and reasonable” profits. Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Small were paid $6 million apiece in less than two years, according to court documents. Such huge sums would normally require special approval. But since the money came from the secret account, the A.T.F. officially paid them nothing.
Those around Mr. Lesnak benefited, too. The old tobacco warehouse — a $410,000 repurposed candy factory — was given to his church, property records show. A half-million dollars from the secret account was donated to local law enforcement agencies. Thousands more went to Mr. Lesnak’s children’s school. Mr. Lesnak handed out Blu-ray players and Xboxes to his son’s baseball teammates, one player recalled. The donations, Mr. Small said, were made at Mr. Lesnak’s insistence.
To keep his warehouse workers happy, records show, Mr. Lesnak handed out envelopes of cash — $500 to $700 a month, tax free. On an office casino trip, Ms. Davis testified, he provided money for gambling. Employees were given DVD players, televisions or freezers that arrived in the warehouse, records show.
The ATF's operation finally ran into trouble when US Tobacco began taking an interest in purchases tied to the agency. Concerned it was being used to facilitate something resembling a criminal operation (but run by law enforcement personnel), US Tobacco began looking into activities at its Bristol warehouse. This led to one of the greatest moments of combined irony and schadenfreude in human existence.
The operation ran until Stuart Thompson, a bookish Manhattan native, took over as chief financial officer at U.S. Tobacco. He repeatedly pressed the warehouse manager to explain the unusual supply of Palermos. No market existed for that many cigarettes, he said.
On March 8, 2013, the warehouse manager called Mr. Thompson. “He started telling me that A.T.F. was doing operations in our warehouse,” Mr. Thompson recalled.
Company lawyers descended on the warehouse, seizing everything. A tobacco company had just raided the A.T.F.
Despite all of this, no one involved has been prosecuted. The DOJ still hasn't attempted to audit the funds the ATF worked with, even while declaring the operation to be highly problematic. Everyone involved walked away unscathed. Even Agent Lesnak, who spearheaded the operation and set up the mixed-money slush fund, never received so much as an oral reprimand. I suppose the DOJ felt the 100 or so arrests resulting from the operation outweighed the illegal activity that went on for years under its nose.
The whole story is worth reading. It shows the ATF has the DEA's mentality: nothing matters but the job. Any and all illegal operations are forgiven in advance (and often in arrears) because doing the government's version of God' work involves breaking laws like omelet eggs and keeping oversight as far away as possible from day-to-day activities.
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