When Congressional leaders launched an investigation into the now roundly-criticized operation dubbed, "Fast and Furious," some of the questions also focused on a similar investigation in Houston. Local 2 Investigates has spoken to another firearms dealer whose accusations are being added to a growing list of questions being asked by a Texas senator.
"Fast and Furious" was an operation run by agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives' Phoenix office. The plan was to stop Mexican drug cartel recruits from purchasing weapons in the United States and then sending the guns back across the border. Congressional testimony revealed this operation, in essence, was designed to allow cartel recruits to purchase guns and then have federal agents follow the buyers back to the cartels and arms traffickers. Federal officials refer to this as a "straw purchase." Government officials state a "straw purchase" occurs when a person legally purchases a weapon but then hands that weapon over to a third party, typically a person who is not legally allowed to own a weapon.
Congressional reports state hundreds of weapons purchased during this operation disappeared and wound up at crime scenes and shootouts on both sides of the border. A report prepared earlier this year for the House Oversight Committee also stated some of the guns lost during this operation were later found at the murder of US Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
"I believe, based on what we know now, that "Fast and Furious" did extend to Texas," said Sen. John Cornyn.
Cornyn began asking questions about a Houston-based investigation after Local 2 Investigates reported on allegations made by one of the largest independent gun dealers in our area. The owners of Carter's Country accused agents with the ATF's Houston Division of asking the firearms dealer to allow questionable buyers to make purchases so the people could be tracked under the auspices of an ATF initiative called "Gunrunner." This operation resulted in the arrest of more than 20 people funneling guns to the drug cartels. However, according to documents filed in Houston federal court, many guns purchased at Carter's Country wound up at crime scenes in Mexico.
"They did (the sales) because they were asked to do so by the ATF," stated attorney Dick DeGuerin during an interview with Local 2 in August.
DeGuerin represented Carter's Country during a federal probe that ended with no charges being filed against the gun dealer.
Last August, ATF officials strongly denied ever asking Carter's Country to allow so-called "straw buyers" to walk away with guns. ATF officials argued the guns that wound up in Mexico had already made it across the border before the Bureau launched its investigation.
"They just simply have stonewalled us," Cornyn said of his ongoing inquiries to the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the Houston investigation. "I am beyond frustrated."
Local 2 Investigates also spoke with another firearms dealer. Bill James is the owner of The Arms Room, a League City gun dealer and shooting range.
"Did the ATF ask you to allow questionable gun sales to go through?" Local 2 Investigator Robert Arnold asked.
"Yes, they did. They definitely did on two different occasions," said James, referring to two different meetings with the ATF and not to specific gun sales.
James said agents and investigators with the ATF's Houston division gave him and his staff tips on how to spot a person who may be a front for the drug cartels or other arms traffickers.
"The picture I got from the ATF was, 'Yes, go ahead and make the sale,'" said James. "'Do the deal and then get all the information you can get so that we can track this.'"
James said the issue of a "straw buyer" walking into his store never came up after these meetings.
ATF officials in Houston said they never asked James, or any other gun dealer, to allow "straw buyers" to walk away with guns. ATF officials have stated any indication to the contrary is a "misunderstanding."
"There was no misunderstanding. They were condoning the questionable sales with the purpose, as they intended, as I understood they intended, to track these sales across the border," said James.
ATF officials in Houston declined Local 2's request for an on-camera interview but a representative issued a written statement.
"ATF personnel cannot affirmatively advise a firearms dealer to sell a firearm. The decision of whether to sell should be made by the dealer while exercising his own best judgment after taking into account all relevant laws and facts surrounding the circumstances of the sale. ATF’s conversation with Mr. James was the same as with all dealers, 'If you have buyers you suspect are firearms traffickers, call us and we will look into it.' Keep in mind that even when a sale appears to be suspicious it may not be and some investigation on ATF’s part is necessary to make that determination."
"None of this makes me feel good," said Cornyn.
Cornyn provided Local 2 a copy of a letter sent to his office by the US Department of Justice regarding his questions about the operation in Houston and other parts of Texas. The letter stated, "We are currently engaged in a review of the allegations you have brought to our attention and will provide you with additional information as soon as possible. As you know, in March 2011, at the direction of the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General issued a Department-wide directive making clear that the flawed tactics used in Operation Fast and Furious are impermissible."
Cornyn characterized the letter as a "stiff-arm," citing that his office sent the inquiry to the Department of Justice in August and did not receive a response until Nov. 4.
"No one should be under the misapprehension that we're going to let this go," said Cornyn.