The Justice Department Inspector General has kicked off an investigation into questionable tactics used by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) agents that included recruiting mentally disabled individuals to unwittingly participate in sting operations.
Operation Fearless first came to light earlier this year after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel uncovered details of a local ATF operation run amok.
The paper found that federal agents in Milwaukee hired a man with brain damage to help draw criminals to a shop as part of a sting. After the operation concluded, agents arrested the man for crimes they said he committed during the sting.
ATF said the tactics were confined to the Milwaukee operation, but the newspaper discovered that agents used similar tactics in other cities.
“We’ve been calling for the IG to add this to his current review,” Justice Department spokeswoman Ellen Canale told Newsmax.
“ATF has taken appropriate steps in light of past revelations about its storefront operations,” she said in a follow-up email. “A review is already underway to assess these reforms, and that review can and should include a look into these most recent allegations.”
For six months, the ATF used Chauncey Wright — a 28-year-old Milwaukee man with an IQ of 54 — to stage drug deals and criminal transactions at a set-up store where undercover agents could swoop in and make arrests.
Wright was reportedly paid in cigarettes and told to ride his bicycle around the area, handing out fliers about the new store.
Wright was completely unaware that the store was a fake and that it was part of the ATF’s undercover operation. Wright reportedly helped agents stock shelves with illegal merchandise, including drug paraphernalia, aimed at drawing in the criminal element to facilitate making arrests.
When ATF finally shut down the shop, they charged Wright with federal counts related to drugs and illegal guns.
That outcome angered former Milwaukee police officer Greg Thiele, who said a “ludicrous” injustice was done to the mentally challenged man, the Journal Sentinel reported.
A spokesman for the Milwaukee Police Department refused to comment in a telephone call, only confirming that the department had “resources assigned to the ATF” to help with the city’s storefront operations.
ATF agents working undercover in the Milwaukee store also reportedly allowed the operation to be compromised by a burglary, let an armed felon leave the store without apprehension, lost government weapons — including a machine gun — to theft, and damaged a rented building they used during the investigation and refused to pay for it.
At the rental property, ATF agents left behind a stack of sensitive documents that shed light on the law enforcement operation, the Journal Sentinel’s investigation showed.
The agents also set up sting operations near churches and schools, aimed at catching criminal activities in areas that carry stiffer fines and penalties. And they specifically tried to attract youthful offenders, enticing them to commit crimes by offering alcohol and video games.
At the end of the operation, the ATF could not report any substantial arrests or convictions.
On the heels of the firestorm generated by the newspaper report, ATF officials testified before Congress and assured members that the botched operation that included Wright was an isolated episode resulting from lax office supervision.
But the newspaper recently found during a further review of court documents and police reports that similar ATF undercover operations have occurred in several other cities across the nation.
The newspaper’s investigation also found that ATF agents in other cities, including Atlanta, Wichita, and Albuquerque, copied the Milwaukee method of recruiting the mentally disabled to do dirty legwork.
For those looking for easy money, the federal operations have proven lucrative. Fox News reported that ATF agents hoping to get guns off the street with buyback programs have offered such insanely high prices that many people have simply bought weapons at shops, then turned around and sold them to the ATF — making a quick profit at taxpayer expense.
In November, Inspector General Michael Horowitz wrote to Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, both members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations, vowing a thorough review.
“Our review will evaluate the progress and effectiveness of the measures that the department has implemented since the time of the Fast and Furious report. We will consider activities and operations by ATF that were initiated subsequent to the new measures being implemented, including Operation Fearless in Milwaukee,” Horowitz wrote.
At least one Wisconsin politician, Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, is getting impatient with the investigation and wants quick answers.
In a letter to Horowitz dated Dec. 12, Baldwin detailed how she had earlier asked then-acting ATF Director B. Todd Jones for a further explanation about the agency’s undercover “tactics, methods and operations.”
Now she wants a more thorough investigation, given the new information that’s come to light indicating that the ATF’s abuses have spread to more cities.
“ATF allegedly recruited and used individuals with developmental disabilities in their drug-and-gun operation in Milwaukee and at least four other cities,” Baldwin wrote.
“These reports also allege ATF agents intentionally targeted individuals with development disabilities to carry out illegal activities associated with the storefront stings. The methods and tactics used to get illegal firearms off the street raise a number of questions that need to be answered.”