Senator Chuck Grassley and Congressman Darrell Issa are slamming the Justice Department once again for the deadly consequences of the fatally-flawed gun walking program known as Operation Fast and Furious.
After learning that documents recovered by the conservative watchdog organization Judicial Watch indicated that another firearm linked to the operation was recovered at a crime scene in Arizona, the two Republican lawmakers iterated their frustration with the DOJ and doubled-down on their demand for answers on the botched gun walking operation that sent upwards of 2,000 firearms into the hands of known Mexican drug cartel operatives.
Here is a copy of the letter that Issa and Grassley sent to Deputy Attorney General Cole, who on Thursday announced that he would step down from his position once a replacement was named, following in the footsteps of his boss Attorney General Eric Holder (emphasis added):
October 16, 2014
VIA ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSION
The Honorable James M. Cole
Deputy Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530
Dear Deputy Attorney General Cole:
On more than one occasion, we have written the Department to ask for information about firearms that have been recovered in connection with violent crimes and are associated with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF’s) Operation Fast and Furious. The Department has failed to respond to our last three letters on this topic, sent on October 2, 2012, December 17, 2012, and July 12, 2013.
Once again, we have learned of another crime gun connected to Fast and Furious. The Department did not provide any notice to the Congress or the public about this gun.
Documents obtained by Judicial Watch under Arizona’s public records law show that law enforcement officials recovered a Fast and Furious gun last summer in connection with a shooting that left two individuals wounded. At 12:30 a.m. on Tuesday, July 30, 2013, the Phoenix Police Department received reports of shots fired at an apartment complex. Responding officers arrived to find two wounded men, one inside an apartment and one outside. The men had suffered multiple gunshot wounds, and the front windows and door of the apartment had several bullet holes. Witnesses of the shooting reported that just after the shots were fired, a vehicle sped in reverse through a nearby parking lot and crashed backward into a fence at the apartment complex. Several individuals were then seen running in various directions from the complex. Police discovered an assault rifle in the front passenger area of the vehicle.
Approximately three weeks later, Phoenix Police Department detectives and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations agents arrested four individuals on counts of attempted homicide, aggravated assault, shooting into an occupied structure, and burglary. The arrests were reportedly connected with a large-scale drug trafficking investigation.
Based on the serial number from the police report obtained by Judicial Watch and documents obtained during our Fast and Furious investigation, we can confirm that the assault rifle recovered in the vehicle on July 30, 2013 was purchased by Sean Christopher Steward. Steward pled guilty to firearms trafficking charges resulting from his involvement with Operation Fast and Furious. A Department press release summarizes Steward’s activity:
During a six-month period from December 2009 through June 2010, Steward, using funds provided by the leader of the firearms trafficking organization, paid over $176,000 in cash to purchase approximately 289 firearms, including 260 AK-47 style firearms, 20 nine millimeter pistols, a .50 caliber rifle and other “weapons of choice” of the Mexican drug cartels.
Steward purchased this particular firearm on December 8, 2009, one of 40 that he purchased that day while under ATF surveillance. According to the Office of Inspector General (OIG) report of Operation Fast and Furious:
On the morning of December 8, MacAllister went to FFL1 and was informed that a caller inquired about the store’s inventory of AK-47 style rifles. The incoming telephone number was from Celis-Acosta’s residence, which had already been identified by agents as a possible stash house. Shortly thereafter, Steward arrived to purchase the 20 AK-47 style rifles. A United Parcel Services truck delivered an additional 20 AK-47 style rifles while Steward was at the store and, according to the ATF report of this incident, Steward told FFL1 that he would return later in the day and purchase those firearms as well.
Agents maintained surveillance of Steward after he left FFL1 and eventually observed him transfer boxes containing the firearms from his vehicle to another. Agents also conducted surveillance of Steward when he returned to FFL1 accompanied by two other individuals to purchase the additional 20 AK-47 style rifles. The firearms were placed in the bed of a truck – not Steward’s vehicle – and the three individuals left FFL1. At ATF’s request, Phoenix police officers conducted a traffic stop of the vehicle in order to identify its occupants, one of whom was Celis-Acosta. The officers asked the occupants about the firearms that were visible in the back of the vehicle. Steward told the officers that he purchased the firearms and that they belonged to him. The officers did not seize the firearms or issue a traffic citation. Surveillance was continued after this stop, and agents eventually observed the firearms being transferred into Celis-Acosta’s residence.
Under circumstances that we describe later, 8 of the 40 firearms purchased by Steward on December 8 were seized by police officers in Douglas, Arizona (adjacent to the Mexican border) later that same day. ATF reviewed records on December 9 from the Arizona Department of Economic security that showed Steward had a reported income totaling $4479 for the first quarter of 2009.
ATF officials entered the 40 firearms Steward purchased on December 8, 2009 into ATF’s Suspect Gun Database on December 9, 2009. As our July 31, 2012 joint staff report recounted, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) wiretap in early December 2009 also intercepted telephone communications in which Steward made arrangements to obtain firearms for DEA’s target. DEA passed this information off to ATF, but ATF utterly failed to act on it. The OIG report concludes of Steward in this time period:
Steward went on to purchase approximately 200 firearms in December, all but one from FFL1, for over $110,000. This total included 43 firearms purchased on a single day, December 14 (four of these firearms were recovered in Mexico just four days later). Steward purchased another 42 firearms in January 2010 for over $25,000. ATF did not take any measures to disrupt Steward’s purchasing activity following the events on December 8 or at any other time until agents interviewed him at his residence in November 2010. Steward was not arrested until the Fast and Furious case was indicted on January 19, 2011.
Patrick Cunningham, then Chief of the Criminal Division for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona, apparently prepared talking points for then-U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke’s indictment press conference. These talking points highlighted Steward’s December 8, 2009 purchase as typical of the firearms trafficking ring whose takedown ATF and the U.S. Attorney’s office touted that day.
On July 18, 2012 Steward pled guilty for his role in Operation Fast and Furious, and was sentenced on November 26, 2012 to serve nine years in prison. Steward’s attorney at the time said he planned to appeal his client’s sentence.
According to the Phoenix Police Department report, ATF traced the firearm on July 31, 2013, the day Phoenix police officers recovered it. Yet, over a full year has passed, and the Department has failed to notify the Committees. The refusal to respond to our standing requests for this information effectively hides the connection between crimes like this and Operation Fast and Furious. Unless the information becomes available some other way, the public would never know. This lack of transparency about the consequences of Fast and Furious undermines public confidence in law enforcement and gives the impression that the Department is still seeking to suppress information and limit its exposure to public scrutiny.
Therefore, please respond to the following questions as soon as possible, but not later than October 30, 2014:
1) Was the firearm recovered on July 30, 2013 connected with any other crimes in Mexico or the U.S.?
2) As of the date of this letter, what is the total number of weapons associated with Fast and Furious that have been recovered in the U.S. and successfully traced?
3) As of the date of this letter, what is the total number of weapons associated with Fast and Furious that have been recovered in Mexico and successfully traced?
4) Of the U.S recoveries, how many were recovered in relation to an incident of a violent nature? Please describe in detail the date and circumstances of each recovery that has not previously been described in the Department’s responses to our letters.
5) Of the Mexican recoveries, how many were recovered in relation to an incident of a violent nature? Please describe in detail the date and circumstances of each recovery that has not previously been described in the Department’s responses to our letters.
Should you have any questions regarding this request, please contact Tristan Leavitt of the Senate Judiciary Committee staff at (202) 224-5225 or Ashok Pinto of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform staff at (202) 225-5074. Thank you for your prompt attention to this important matter.
Charles E. Grassley, Ranking Member Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate
Darrell Issa, Chairman Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives
This is slightly random and off topic, but looking back on some of the comments Holder has made in the past, are you really all that surprised by the gross incompetency (that’s being kind, one can argue that his stonewalling on the Congressional investigation into Fast and Furious is on par with criminal behavior, i.e. obstruction of justice) of this Department of Justice?