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Issa subpoenas ATF over storefront stings; Ares Armor case on hold

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Two seemingly unrelated cases involving the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will keep that agency in the headlines, with California's Ares Armor's legal action against the ATF placed on hold yesterday, while Congressman Darrell Issa, chair of the House Oversight Committee, late yesterday issued a subpoena to the ATF over yet another scandal, this involving storefront sting operations.

A hearing on Ares Armor’s motion for a preliminary injunction against ATF, originally scheduled for this afternoon, is now off the calendar, vacated as moot by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, in the wake of last weekend’s search by ATF of business sites owned by Lycurgan, Inc., doing business as Ares Armor. National Gun Rights Examiner David Codrea details that part of the story here.

But while Codrea was busy with that, Issa was moving on the subpoenas. According to a Thursday morning press release from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Issa is going after documents relating to ATF’s “storefront sting operations” in several cities, including Milwaukee, Wis., Portland, Ore., Wichita, Kan., Albuquerque, N.M., Pensacola, Fla., and Atlanta, Ga.

These sting operations were exposed by stories in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel early last year regarding “Operation Fearless.” This was the sting operation in that city that, according to today’s press release, “was fundamentally mismanaged.” Further media reports revealed that the agency allegedly “exploited a mentally disabled man” and then subsequently charged him with a crime.

In another case, also reported by the Journal-Sentinel, a Portland man who was also described as mentally disabled was reportedly cajoled into getting a tattoo on his neck showing a squid smoking pot. The newspaper headline put it bluntly: “ATF uses rogue tactics in storefront stings across the nation.” Hot Air picked up on that.

In his letter yesterday to ATF Director B. Todd Jones, Issa asserted that these storefront operations were “dangerously mismanaged.” He also expressed disappointment in ATF’s “complete lack of cooperation with the (Oversight) Committee’s investigation” of the sting operations.

Issa has considerable experience with ATF, having spent more than two years investigating the agency’s activities in the Operation Fast and Furious scandal, which was first revealed by Codrea and independent blogger Mike Vanderboegh at Sipsey Street Irregulars.

This time around, Issa notes that the storefront sting included the embarrassing theft of some $40,000 in merchandise and three firearms, including a fully-automatic rifle, belonging to ATF agents.

“Beyond the thefts in Milwaukee,” Issa wrote, “numerous problems existed at other ATF storefront operations.” These problems, he said, included the recruitment of mentally handicapped individuals “to facilitate sales of guns” and who were subsequently arrested for their involvement.

“In one case,” Issa said, “a storefront intended to lure criminals with guns and drugs was inexplicably situated directly across the street from a middle school.”

The subpoena requires ATF to provide the following documents:

  • Communications relating to Operation Fearless Distributing and the Monitored Case Program at ATF.
  • Operational plans and relevant Reports of Investigation for undercover storefront operations conducted around the country.
  • Documents relating to authorization for ATF agents to sell weapons during these operations.
  • ATF policies for conducting undercover storefront operations.
  • Relevant Reports of Investigation, for undercover storefront operations conducted between January 1, 2010 and March 19, 2014, in the six cities mentioned above.

The timing of this subpoena does not appear connected to the ATF case regarding Ares Armor. The company is now represented by veteran California attorney Chuck Michel, whose clients include the National Rifle Association and California Rifle and Pistol Association. Michel has been representing EP Armory, which manufactures so-called “80 percent” receivers for AR-type rifles. These unfinished receivers are at the heart of the controversy over the weekend raid on Ares Armor, which is not a federally-licensed firearms dealer.

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UPDATE: ATF spokeswoman Jennifer Cicolani told Examiner late this morning that there is an ongoing investigation, and right now any further action will depend upon where that investigation leads. She acknowledged that ATF’s firearms technical office has been asked to re-evaluate their initial finding that the so-called “80-percent” receivers are not firearms.

It is also being reported that Ares Armor will ask Issa to look into the agency's activities in relation to the California case.

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Ares Armor CEO Demitrios Karras confirmed to this column that his company, in business for about four years, has sold the unfinished receiver parts for home gunsmiths who want to build their own rifles. These “80-percent” polymer receivers are not serialized. Approximately 6,000 of these units were seized by ATF last Saturday as reported by this column here and here, along with company computers.

Meanwhile, Issa reminded Jones that letters sent as far back as Jan. 31, April 3 and May 10 last year, and this past Jan. 9, have gone unanswered.

“Despite receiving assurances from your staff that ATF would fully cooperate with our investigation,” Issa wrote yesterday, “not once have you or your staff responded to any of these letters or produced even a single document.

“The time for hollow promises is over,” the congressman said.

Issa is giving Jones until March 31 to hand over the requested documents. It now remains to be seen whether ATF will continue stonewalling – an earmark habit of the Justice Department under Barack Obama and Eric Holder – or cooperate.

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