For weeks, congressional leaders have grilled officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives about an operation in Arizona called "Fast and Furious." Now, some of those pointed questions are focusing on a gun trafficking investigation conducted by the ATF's Houston office.
According to testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, agents involved in Fast and Furious allowed Mexican drug cartel recruits to buy guns in the United States with the hopes of following the buyers and weapons back to key cartel and smuggling operations. The operation, called "reckless" by some congressional leaders, was aimed at curbing guns bought in the U.S. from reaching the hands of cartel members in Mexico.
"It got people killed," said U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican congressman from California and chairman of the House's Oversight Committee who has been critical of the ATF's operation.
A congressional report showed hundreds of the guns slipped through the cracks during the investigation. A joint staff report prepared for the House Oversight Committee and Senate Committee on the Judiciary claimed some of the Fast and Furious guns wound up in Mexico, some guns were found at crime scenes in the United States and hundreds more are missing.
The report read that Fast and Furious ended when guns that were part of the operation were found at the murder of border patrol agent Brian Terry.
Now, congressional leaders want to know if similar problems happened in Houston during an investigation done under the auspices of an ATF initiative called "Gunrunner." The operation targeted "straw buyers" in border states recruited to legally purchase handguns and high-powered rifles only to hand the weapons over to members of the drug cartels.
"The ATF agents encouraged them to go through with the sales," said Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin, who represents Carter's Country, the largest independent gun retailer in our region.
DeGuerin said starting in 2006, Houston ATF agents asked Carter's Country for help by alerting agents when a suspicious gun buyer tried to purchase multiple weapons. DeGuerin referred to this effort as a "stall and call."
"Stall the purchaser, call the ATF, let an ATF agent come out and watch the sale so they could follow it," DeGuerin said.
"Did the ATF always show up?" asked Local 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
"No, they didn't," DeGuerin said.
DeGuerin claimed there were at least six instances when agents did not show up when store employees alerted the ATF to a suspicious gun buyer. Yet, DeGuerin said the ATF still told employees to let the sales go through.
"So they went through with the sale, reported it and who knows what happened," said DeGuerin.
Officials with the ATF's Houston Office declined Local 2's request for an on-camera interview. However, during a face-to-face meeting with Arnold, an ATF spokesperson denied agreeing to such an arrangement, citing a lack of manpower to respond to every call about a suspicious gun buyer.
An ATF spokesperson also told Local 2 the Bureau has always asked for the cooperation of firearms dealers.
"They're one of our best sources of information on suspicious gun purchases," the spokesperson said. However, ATF officials conceded Carter's Country may have "misconstrued" the bureau's request for help in reporting suspicious sales as a request to allow suspicious sales to go through so the ATF could track the buyer later. ATF officials said they never asked anyone to perform a "stall and call."
"They did (the sales) because they were asked to do so by the ATF," DeGuerin argued.
The Houston operation led to the arrest and conviction of more than 20 so-called "straw buyers" purchasing weapons for the drug cartels.
In a criminal complaint filed in Houston federal court, ATF agents wrote the discovery of these "straw buyers" came during a routine audit of gun sales in January 2007, which revealed a suspicious pattern of certain individuals making multiple purchases of high-powered rifles and handguns.
In the criminal complaint, ATF agents noted some weapons purchased at Carter's Country stores in 2006 were eventually found at murder scenes and gun battles in Mexico. ATF officials pointed out these gun sales were made prior to the start of the Houston investigation. The criminal complaint credited Carter's Country with alerting the ATF to one of these suspicious gun buyers.
DeGuerin flatly denies the ATF's version of events, saying Carter's Country routinely supplied the ATF with tips about suspicious gun buys starting in 2006.
"The ATF agents told personnel at Carter's Country to complete, that is go through with, questionable sales that otherwise those folks would have said, 'No we're not going to do that,'" said DeGuerin.
ATF officials said they have no authority to order any firearms dealer to either accept or deny a legal sale.
Still, DeGuerin said Carter's Country continued calling ATF agents with reports of suspicious gun buyers until 2010.
"They got notified they were under investigation, and that's what pulled the plug," said DeGuerin, referring to a federal grand jury investigation launched by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Houston.
DeGuerin said despite years of supplying tips to the ATF, Carter's Country employees were accused of "being in league with, in other words, conspiring with the straw purchasers and it simply wasn't true."
DeGuerin prepared a chart that responded to investigators' questions about 16 specific gun sales that took place during the ATF's Houston operation.
"On each and every one of them, we had the date and time and the manner in which the ATF had been notified," said DeGuerin, who allowed Local 2 to view the chart. DeGuerin declined to allow Local 2 to copy the chart, citing personal information of Carter's Country employees.
DeGuerin said at his insistence, the U.S. Attorney's Office and an ATF agent involved in the investigation met with him and Carter's Country's owners. DeGuerin said during the meeting, he presented the chart of information regarding the 16 suspicious gun sales. DeGuerin said "pretty promptly" after that meeting he received a letter from the U.S. Attorney's Office stating the investigation into Carter's Country was being dropped.
"I don't believe the ATF agents involved or even their supervisors were being honest with the U.S. Attorney's Office," said DeGuerin. "They tried to cooperate with ATF. It got them nothing except attorney's fees and a tarnished reputation for these people that have been in business for 50 years."