WTF ATF: The ATF's Fake Retail Stores, Bad Behavior… And Why It Only Came Out Because They Failed To Pay Rent

from the wtf-indeed dept

This past week, on This American Life, the first 20 minutes or so are the incredible story of just how screwed up the ATF continues to be (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms). Much of this has been reported on over the past year and a half by reporters in Milwaukee (and investigated by Congress), but it’s absolutely worth listening to the details — which you can do over on the This American Life page (I’d post the embed here, but unfortunately This American Life does not yet appear to support HTTPS, so we can’t). The story is all kinds of stunning, including the insane fact that most of the details came out, and the reporters only began their investigation, because some undercover ATF agents in Milwaukee had trashed the property they were renting, and refused to pay the rent or damages to the landlord — even threatening the landlord, claiming he was harassing federal agents by asking for the rent:

John Diedrich: I get a call. And it was from a landlord, a guy named Dave Salkin. And Dave Salkin owns this place that he, unbeknownst to him, rented to the ATF. Didn’t know who they were, they were undercover agents. And they had trashed his place, and they were behind on rent. They had threatened him. And I said, where are you, I’m coming right now.

Ira Glass: While they were undercover, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives basically ripped up his place. Salkin said at the time that they owed $15,000 in damages and back rent. Later he said it was more. When he tried to collect, they didn’t pay up. In fact, an ATF lawyer warned him that if he kept asking for the money, it could be seen as harassing federal agents.

The other thing that becomes clear in all of this is that these “undercover” ATF agents aren’t just sloppy and stupid, they seem to go out of their way to be ineffective and dangerous.

Ira Glass: And they were robbed. These agents whose job it was to get guns out of the hands of criminals had three guns that were stolen out of an agent’s car while he was parked at a coffee shop. These included a fully automatic rifle. This is a machine gun, the kind that normally only law enforcement and military can legally have.

Not long after that, the store itself was burglarized of $39,000 in clothes, jewelry, and merch, reportedly, because the ATF had not bothered to do much to secure the store and just did not seem to care. Nobody was minding the store, literally.

John Diedrich: The ATF had no working burglar alarm on their building. So it was sort of, instead of a smash and grab, it was just this sort of like slow burglary. The neighbors report at one point, once they were able to get in– again, no burglar alarm– they kept the door propped open with a shoe. And they were just kind of taking stuff out.

And the word sort of spread. Hey, this place is just open. Nobody’s there. We can just go get stuff. And at one point they just pulled up a U-Haul. And they were just sort of emptying this. And this is over several days. And then even–

Ira Glass: Renting a U-Haul is such a crazy move, because is it means that somebody had to go and decide, I’m going to rent a truck. That’s how slow this burglary is, that you can do a rental.

John Diedrich: Yeah, exactly. And there’s no sort of concern that you’re going to be busted at that point, and just say, OK, I can only carry so much in my arms. Let’s get something bigger. Let’s get a U-Haul.

Ira Glass: The same day the burglary was reported, an ATF ballistic shield, the kind that they would use to raid a house or something, was turned in by a scrapper at a Milwaukee police station. One item that was just left lying around in the store after the robbery for anybody to pick up and read– it was there when reporter John Diedrich walked through– was a secret ATF document listing the names of undercover agents, their undercover vehicles from several law enforcement agencies in Milwaukee.

There’s a lot more like this. Including potential copyright infringement:

Ira Glass: And they distributed flyers with the store’s logo, which was a skull with angel wings made from assault rifles and knives with the words Buy, Sell, Trade, wink, wink. Federal agents actually ripped off the logo from the Sylvester Stallone film, The Expendables, possibly in violation of their copyright.

The story details just how incredibly counterproductive all these efforts were. Since they were paying super high prices for guns, people would suddenly start stealing guns just because the ATF was making them so valuable. And, despite the ATF pretending otherwise, the case in Milwaukee was hardly a one-off situation.

Raquel Rutledge: And as we started looking, really, truly, we came back to one other– you’re not going to believe this. I mean, we were shocked. I don’t think we expected to find this going on. Absolutely not, did we expect to find that it would go on elsewhere, because you can’t imagine this would be part of a playbook or an MO of a federal agency. So it was stunning to find. Had they been burglarized? Did they trash the landlord’s place?

We found in Portland the lady just said, I am so glad you called. She said, I have not known what to do. She said, they left my place in shambles. She had photos of what they left it like– I mean, like a college fraternity or something. Just trash everywhere, they tore out some walls and they rewired some stuff and caused a leaky roof. She estimates her damages were probably $20,000 roughly, $20,000, $25,000. So that, you think, how does that happen? Is that, again, part of the playbook?

Ira Glass: Raquel and John looked into ATF storefronts in Wichita, Portland, Oregon, Pensacola, Albuquerque, Atlanta, and Phoenix. Some of the Milwaukee problems they found examples of in those other cities? Agents paying extra high prices for guns, buying stolen goods, criminals committing burglaries in the neighborhoods around the stores and then selling the stuff to the ATF. Raquel and John say that the quality of the convictions from these operations around the country, the kinds of people that the ATF was catching were mostly small fry, just like in Milwaukee. The ATF store in Pensacola was robbed just like the Milwaukee store was, twice.

There’s a lot more in the story — and it’s totally worth listening to. But the most fascinating point of all may be the one right up front in the story, and then reinforced at the end. None of this likely would have come out if it were not for the unpaid rent.

It wasn’t the squid tattoos or the low-IQ employees or getting robbed over and over. It wasn’t the way they caught and charged suspects. It was that landlord in Milwaukee. If they hadn’t trashed his place, or if they had just paid him promptly to repair it instead of fighting him over every penny, apparently, he wouldn’t have called the newspaper. John and Raquel say the whole thing might never have come to light.

The whole effort has resulted in some attempts to actually disband the entire ATF, which might not be such a bad idea. While we hadn’t been following the agency that closely (and hadn’t been aware of all of these fake storefronts and the crazy stories behind them), in the past we’ve reported on how the ATF made up an entire robbery plot in order to entrap a group of poor young men in a “crime” that wouldn’t have existed, but for the ATF’s fantasy.

It would be nice to trust law enforcement officials, but they keep giving us reasons not to trust them at all.

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Comments on “WTF ATF: The ATF's Fake Retail Stores, Bad Behavior… And Why It Only Came Out Because They Failed To Pay Rent”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Unsurprised

Those of us who are parents are well familiar with this syndrome. From about the age of 2 or 3 they start probing. By the time they get to 8 or 9 they’re experts at it. They keep pushing until they get (figuratively) slapped down, whereupon they start on a different limit. This is perfectly normal, for children. By the time we achieve adulthood, we’re supposed to be past it. Apparently not. Daddy needs to spank, HARD.

Government Sucks says:

Re: And what happened to the guns?

No, after sold to ATF they willingly allowed criminals (probably ATF officials or family/friends) to steal them from the ATF for them to be sold back to the ATF AGAIN thus creating a flow of money to these corrupt bastards. I am sick of this country and I think there needs to be a task force to take down these ‘legal’ mobs

Anonymous Coward says:

Alcohol, tobacco, and *firearms*

I never quite got it. Alcohol and tobacco are drugs. Firearms are weapons. They are completely unrelated. Why is a single USA federal agency responsible for two completely unrelated fields (drugs and weapons)?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to have two separate agencies, one for the drugs and one for the weapons?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Alcohol, tobacco, and *firearms*

I think it’s more of an idea of “regulated vices”. Alcohol and tobacco are indeed drugs, but they have the unique position in the US as being (the only?) legally available drugs, no prescription required. Firearms along those same lines are similarly weapons that citizens are allowed to have.

Not that I think the ATF is a good idea. Personally, I’m of the mind that we should scrap the lot of our federal level enforcement/intelligence/security agencies and make just two. One for internal, and one for external. Bonus points if the system is set up so that the two are adversarial to each other.

steell (profile) says:

Re: Re: Alcohol, tobacco, and *firearms*

“Firearms along those same lines are similarly weapons that citizens are allowed to have.”

No, hell no! The Second Amendment to the US Constitution confirms our right to own firearms, it doesn’t “Allow” it.

That’s like saying the only rights we have are those allowed by the US Government.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Alcohol, tobacco, and *firearms*

Yeah no, the bill of rights aren’t permission slips, they are natural rights which cannot be revoked, and thus can’t be granted.

When the bill of rights was being debated, many of the participants didn’t even want it because precisely because of your comment. They were afraid that people would interpret them as being granted instead of natural.

zlonk says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Alcohol, tobacco, and *firearms*

An antique document contains the antique phrase “..deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..”

That selfsame document claims the right to appropriate remedies against governments unable to meet this high standard.

If you were educated in America in the last 30 years, you’re unlikely to have read it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Alcohol, tobacco, and *firearms*

You need to re-read the Constitution. The Federal Government exists as a result of the Constitution, not the other way around. Supposedly, we the people, in the form of the several states, ratified the Constitution which then allowed the Federal Government to be set up with strict limits on it’s authority. Somehow Congress and the Supreme Court have managed to circumvent most of those limits, to our great detriment. IMHO, the “government” we now have is totally illegal and way beyond the constitutional limits.

DonM says:

Re: Re: Alcohol, tobacco, and *firearms*

ATF was once part of Internal Revenue. They were separated from IRS when IRS focused on income/corporate taxes, but they are still mostly a tax collection agency, taxes on alcohol, taxes on tobacco.

Because of 2nd Amendment, they can’t infringe, but they can tax guns. Hence the 200$ tax on short barrelled rifles, sawed off shotguns, or fully automatic weapons, to be paid when you file Form 1.

Oh, and the fee when they conduct their ‘background check’ which is largely a check to see if you have paid your taxes.

Leit says:

Re: Alcohol, tobacco, and *firearms*

Long story short, but BATFE started off as enforcers of Prohibition. When Prohibition was repealed, they ended up working for the IRS handling alcohol tax regulation. Regulation of federal firearm laws were added, more or less because the department was overstaffed, given that their workload had now mostly evaporated like so much cheap ethanol. Not that there was much by way of federal firearms law to regulate, at the time. Mostly it involved issuing of tax stamps.

Tobacco was added to their portfolio not long after, but the real kicker came with GCA ’68, which drastically expanded the scope for firearms regulation. The bureau was split off from the IRS not long after, and has slowly snowballed into the incompetent monster that we see today.

markm says:

Re: Alcohol, tobacco, and *firearms*

It’s because the NFA was originally formulated as an excise tax on certain kinds of guns. So they handed the enforcement to the revenuers. Since the federal Prohibition enforcement was rolled into the Treasury revenuers when Prohibition ended, it wasn’t that strange to most of these agents to be enforcing a law that was intended to be far more of a ban than a tax.

Anonymous Coward says:

The ATF doesn't even have a head at the top to roll

Part of why the ATF is so screwed up is because they don’t have a department head that’s accountable to the president and congress. In fact, the ATF hasn’t had a head of the ATF for over a decade.

The reason is because the NRA convinced congress to change the ATF to make their head need approval by the senate before they take the job. And then the NRA opposed EVERYONE both Bush and Obama have ever nominated to head the ATF.

That’s the reason why Eric Holder was getting the blame for the Fast and Furious scandal despite having nothing to do with the ATF’s day to day operations. He was the closest thing to an appointed head of the ATF congress could find to blame.

Leit says:

Re: The ATF doesn't even have a head at the top to roll

Fast and Furious resulted in the resignation of the acting director of the ATF, Kenneth Melson. Yes, they’ve had someone at the top the whole time – officially in an acting capacity.

The ATF has proven itself, over and over, to be less of a regulatory agency and more of an arm of anti-gun politics. Gun rights orgs might not have gotten involved in the appointment of ATF directors, but for the fact that everyone vetted for that post was pushing for more restrictions – and the ATF gets to make up its own rules as it goes along, rather than relying purely on laws as written. This means that by playing policy, the ATF director has a lot of power to make life hell for gun owners, and there’s damn-all they can do about it.

So yeah, appoint an administrator? Sure. Appoint some tool with an agenda? Yeah, no.

Baron von Robber says:

Re: Re: heh, where did all the kop apologists go ? ? ?

Cut, cut cut cut!

K, first of all, your using too much of your brain. Stop that.

Next, you need to feel that righteous indignation that the masses want to do away a police state. Only you stand between them and themselves!
Say to yourself, “Bow down before the one you serve. You’re going to get what you deserve.”

K, now………….action!

Anonymous Coward says:

...machine guns...

…These included a fully automatic rifle. This is a machine gun, the kind that normally only law enforcement and military can legally have…

Last time I checked it was perfectly legal for a private citizen to own and possess a machine gun; HOWEVER: the paperwork requirements are such that most people won’t bother. Mostly gun shop owners are now the only people with such licenses. The criminals won’t bother with the licensing process.

Leit says:

Re: ...machine guns...

Licensing and transfer of machine guns is contingent on the approval of the ATF, and they don’t do licensing for average civilians any more. Haven’t in decades.

It’s still possible to buy a previously licensed full-auto, but they’re basically unicorns. A grandfathered buzzgun with paperwork sells for a lot more than most folks (who aren’t millionaires) can afford, and the market is really damn small, since they rarely come up for sale. There’s also the small issue of, as mentioned, the ATF needing to approve the transfer.

Any current-generation full-autos in criminal hands tend to come from outside of the US or are stolen from police departments.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: ...machine guns...

“Any current-generation full-autos in criminal hands tend to come from outside of the US or are stolen from police departments.”

Considering the direction that Police Departments have been leaning in, according to the all the recent news about their “shopping trips” and “acceptable homicides”, methinks that statement might be more realistically written thus:

“Any current-generation full-autos in criminal hands tend to come from outside of the US or are purchased from the back door recycling shops of police departments.”

Anonymous Coward says:

The Bill of Rights is part of US Constitutional law. Constitutional law is the foundation of our Republic, from which all other laws are built on top of. Citizens, military, police, congress, judiciary, and the executive branch. Are all bound by the law. If you believe that sort of thing. That’s how it’s supposed to work in principle anyway.

JoeDetroit (profile) says:

This American Life

I saw the headline here on Techdirt & thought “hey, this was on This American Life just the other day…”. Glad to see TD referencing the show.

This American Life is an excellent program. I download the podcasts & listen regularly on my commute. Their explanation of the global financial meltdown was the best explanation I ever heard. They covered patent trolling very well also.

Killer_Tofu (profile) says:

Re: This American Life

I also download and listen to them. I actually started because Podcasts was something I sort of wanted to do, and then TD had the article that focused entirely on podcasts.

The circle is now complete. TD gives me that final little push to start listening to Podcasts. Mentions This American Life. I listen. Now I read back on TD about what I listened to. =)

Anonymous Coward says:

If it weren’t for the ATF the war on drugs would have stopped long ago , but these guys keep the business going they sell the drugs or allow them to be sold and then arrest low to mid level dealers , they dont focus on how much of any particular drug hits the streets ,they could care less all they want is a bust , they are the drug trade business owners and the importers.

tom (profile) says:

My guess is that no one will be held accountable and the poor landlord will find he is being audited by the nice folks at the IRS for improper expense deductions related to his rental properties.

If Fast and Furious had been done by the Wylie Coyote Gun Co., the CEO and high company officials would already have been tried and convicted and be in jail. The Board of Directors would be facing charges of improper oversight. The company itself would be facing millions of dollars in civil rights violations lawsuits brought by the DOJ on behalf of the families of the hundreds of folks killed by the weapons willfully and knowingly sold to known criminals.
But since the ATF did it, the worst that happened was one official retired with benefits, a few others were transferred to other duties, and the whole thing covered up.
If Wylie Coyote Gun Co. had hindered the investigation like the ATF/DOJ has, they would also be facing Obstruction of Justice charges. Since the hindering is done by the DOJ, it is called Executive Privilege.

Anonymous Coward says:

OK, here’s the real problem: (quoted from,+Tobacco,+Firearms,+and+Explosives,+Bureau+of

“For more than 80 years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was an agency of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The Homeland Security Act of 2002, Pub. L. No. 107-296, 116 Stat. 2135, divided the agency into two bureaus: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (still referred to as ATF) and the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Effective January 24, 2003, the ATF became part of the Justice Department, while the TTB remained part of the Treasury Department. The move of the ATF to the Justice Department would allow ATF agents and inspectors to partner with traditional law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. With this change, the TTB became responsible for revenue collection and regulation of legitimate alcohol and tobacco industries.”

In other words, as of 2003, ATF is now a branch of the DOJ. Ant questions?

some internet jerk says:

Todd Jones got his promotion for silencing whistleblowers.

The current head of BATFE, Todd Jones, was appointed by the President to that position as a reward for doing such a good job silencing BATFE agents who were offering to testify as to criminal wrongdoing regarding Fast and Furious. not some random internet jerk’s conspiracy theory, google “Todd Jones” and “threatens whistleblowers.”. Then click on the video he circulated internally within BATFE, threatening to fire and charge any agent who disclosed wrongdoing.

The fish rots from the head.

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