Four senior ATF managers who supervised the botched Fast and Furious gunrunning investigation could face termination if the recommendations of a disciplinary board are upheld.
The four managers of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were among 14 Justice Department employees singled out for possible disciplinary actions by the department's inspector general in a September report because of their mishandling of the failed gunrunning operation that resulted in hundreds of weapons ending up in the hands of Mexican smugglers.
Fast and Furious was an attempt by ATF to stop the flow of illegal weapons into Mexico by allowing "straw buyers" to walk the weapons — including hundreds of AK-47 semiautomatic assault rifles — into Mexico with a goal of tracking them to drug cartel leaders. But the ATF lost track of hundreds of the weapons, 1,400 of which are still unaccounted for.
A federal source confirmed the recommendation to dismiss the agents. The Wall Street Journal first reported the disciplinary actions against the four Tuesday.
Donna Sellers, a spokeswoman for the ATF, said: "As a matter of policy, we don't discuss personnel matters."
Mark Zaid, an attorney for one of the men, William McMahon, a former deputy assistant director of ATF who oversaw field operations in the West, said his client was fired last week, reportedly on grounds unrelated to Fast and Furious.
But Mr. Zaid said his client is a "victim of political fallout from a partisan battle between the Hill and the Department of Justice."
"He never would have gotten fired if Fast and Furious had not happened," Mr. Zaid said. "He would still be working for ATF."
Mr. Zaid said his client would appeal his dismissal.
The ATF's Professional Review Board has recommended that three other managers also be fired, including Mark Chait, former assistant director for field operations; William Newell, former special agent in charge of the ATF's Phoenix office; and George Gillett, the former second in command in the Phoenix office.
The three will get a chance to appeal their dismissals before a disciplinary review panel of senior managers, said John P. Mahoney, a federal sector employee lawyer who is not involved in the case.
"The agency may not be willing to negotiate, given the external pressures of the case," Mr. Mahoney said. But he said that if the employees are unhappy with the results, they can appeal them to an outside board.
Mr. Newell's attorney, Paul Pelletier, said in an email that "I won't be making any comment at this time."
Mr. Gillett's attorney, Peter Noone, said in an email that his client had "received a proposal for his removal."
"We will be responding to that proposal," he said. "Given that this matter is likely to involve litigation, I cannot provide any additional information."
David Laufman, an attorney for Mark Chait, said in an email that his client "has not been advised of any adverse finding or recommendation by the Professional Review Board at ATF, and any such action would be utterly without merit."
"Mr. Chait had no contemporaneous knowledge or reason to believe that ATF agents in the Phoenix field division were allowing firearms to flow to suspected straw purchasers, or were forgoing the interdiction of firearms transfers when operationally feasible and permissible under law," Mr. Laufman said. "Nor did he fail to take any appropriate actions based on the information disclosed to him at the time and existing ATF policies and procedures."
Mr. Laufman said that when Mr. Chait learned that ATF agents had come forward with allegations of misconduct, he "immediately took steps to protect their legal rights as whistleblowers."
The Wall Street Journal reported that two other ATF employees face disciplinary actions short of firings. David Voth, an ATF Phoenix supervisor, would be demoted to a street agent, and Hope McAllister, a lead agent, would receive a reprimand and disciplinary transfer.
Earlier this week, Gary Grindler, a top Justice Department official who was criticized by the inspector general for his handling of Fast and Furious, announced he was leaving the department.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, who helped spearhead the investigation of Fast and Furious as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said: "His departure from the Justice Department is warranted and long overdue.
"Gary Grindler was appropriately faulted by his department's own inspector general for keeping information about a connection between the murder of a Border Patrol agent and a mishandled department operation away from the attorney general and the Department of Homeland Security," the California Republican said.
Mr. Grindler had served the Department of Justice as interim deputy attorney general and later as chief of staff to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
The inspector general's 471-page report blamed the failure of Operation Fast and Furious on a series of "misguided strategies" and cited "errors in judgment and management failures" on the part of ATF officials at the headquarters in Washington and in the Phoenix field office, and said "questionable judgments" by Justice Department officials in Washington marred the department's responses to Capitol Hill inquiries.
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