Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee which oversees the ATF.(photo courtesy Jack Gruber, USA Today)
by Martha Bellisle, Reno Gazette-Journal
RENO -- The embattled federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, still reeling from the botched gun-trafficking scandal that allowed 2,000 guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, is in the middle of yet another ugly dispute.
The ATF's Reno office has been all-but shut down for nearly a year because U.S. prosecutors said they would no longer accept cases submitted by the office, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported after a months-long investigation.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee which oversees the ATF, said the dispute has forced the transfer of four full-time agents from the Reno outpost, which once housed six investigators. He said a Sept. 29, 2011, directive from Nevada federal prosecutors, informing the ATF that "we are not accepting any cases submitted by your office" has left the office adrift.
The two remaining agents have been attempting to assist state prosecutors because their federal counterparts have shut them out, Grassley said.
The dispute has triggered a flurry of letters from Grassley to acting ATF Director B. Todd Jones and Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who last week issued a scathing account of ATF's handling of the Mexican gun-trafficking case. Grassley has given the agencies until Wednesday to respond.
In that case, investigators also found serious rifts between Arizona federal prosecutors and ATF agents in Phoenix who claimed that gun cases were routinely denied for prosecution.
"The (Nevada U.S. Attorney's Office) categorically refuses to accept any cases submitted by Reno ATF," Grassley said in a Sept. 17 letter to Jones. "As a result, the Reno ATF office has effectively been idled. It allegedly has no supervision, no cases and no investigative resources."
Nevada Assistant U.S. Attorney Sue Fahami, whose signature appears on the 2011 letter, could not be reached for comment. Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden also did not respond to requests for comment.
The ATF declined to comment, referring all inquiries to the Justice Department.
"The department is aware of and looking into the issue,'' Justice spokeswoman Allison Price said. "In the meantime, fighting violent crime in all of our districts, including Nevada, remains one of the department's top priorities."
The Gazette-Journal reported that in addition to refusing cases, federal prosecutors in Nevada also dismissed four indictments against convicted criminals that were the product of investigations by Reno ATF agents.
"Refusing to even consider cases that might merit prosecution as a way to exert influence over a law enforcement agency appears to be an extremely broad application of your discretion," Grassley said in a letter to Bogden.
Federal prosecutors stopped taking the cases because agents would not regularly participate in a task force involving local law enforcement officers set up by Fahami, according to an ATF document obtained by the Gazette-Journal.
"I am concerned that this is going to encourage only more law breaking," Grassley said in an interview. "If you are going to have an office that's not going to accept cases, that is not a good commentary on federal law enforcement."
Contributing: Kevin Johnson and Brad Heath, USA TODAY