Senators Have Big Questions for the ATF

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posted on February 15, 2024
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Gage Skidmore courtesy Flickr

A decades-long scheme by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to classify non-law-enforcement positions within the ATF as law enforcement, which is in violation of federal law, has two U.S. Senators demanding answers.

According to reports, the violations, which were reported to ATF brass by whistleblowers back in 2018, have cost American taxpayers nearly $90 million. That’s one of the reasons U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley (R) and Joni Ernst (R), both from Iowa, recently wrote a letter to the head of the ATF questioning the practice—and the apparent reluctance to remedy the situation.

“We write to you today concerning the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) determination to restore the authority of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to classify positions in the 1800 series—i.e. law enforcement positions,” the letter, addressed to ATF Director Steven Dettelbach and Jolene A. Lauria, acting assistant attorney general for administration, stated. “On November 2, 2020, OPM suspended ATF’s classification authority for 1800 positions after finding misconduct from an evaluation of ATF’s performance management system. This was in addition to the first-hand testimony of two whistleblowers who exposed ATF’s practice of intentionally misclassifying human resources, administrative, and other non-law enforcement positions, as law enforcement in violation of applicable statutory and regulatory law.”

The letter further states that, according to OPM, “ATF established a requirement for law enforcement employees to perform administrative functions in its headquarters to be eligible to enter leadership positions.”

“As a result of ATF’s illegal misclassification scheme, employees assigned to misclassified positions received enhanced law enforcement pay and benefits without performing law enforcement duties, leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab,” the letter states.

Because of the malfeasance, OPM suspended ATF’s authority to classify job positions in the 1800 category, but later restored the agency’s classification authority, despite the fact that the ATF admitted it was unable to provide the necessary evidence and analysis normally required to support its classification determinations.

“We write to you today requesting answers concerning the findings of the ATF Internal Affairs Division investigation and the actions taken to hold those employees accountable who were notified of the illegal misclassification scheme but allowed it to continue,” the letter from the senators stated. “According to legally protected disclosures made to our offices, ATF management was notified as early as 2018 that the agency’s decades-long practice of misclassifying non-law enforcement positions as law enforcement, including leadership positions, was in violation of the law, but ATF failed to take corrective action.”

Ironically, this propensity of the ATF to bend the law internally is in direct contrast with its “zero-tolerance” policy for Federal Firearms Licensees (as in, gun stores). Over the past few years, many gun retailers have been forced out of business over simple paperwork errors, while others have been pressured by the ATF to give up their licenses to avoid a revocation hearing.

According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), in fiscal year 2020, the year President Joe Biden (D) was elected, there were 5,823 ATF inspections of FFL holders, an average of about 485 a month, with 40 licenses revoked. For FY 2023, after the DOJ instituted the zero-tolerance policy, inspections jumped to nearly 650 a month, with 122 revocations.

In the letter to ATF, the senators further demanded that the ATF change its practice of misclassification, that they discipline those involved, and that they provide proof to the public that the agency will no longer continue the illegal practice.

“Appropriate corrective action must be taken in regards to all employees that allowed taxpayer dollars to be wasted after notification of the aforementioned misconduct,” the letter stated. “The American public must know ATF will not revert to its previous impropriety after the restoration of its classification authority.”

Sens. Grassley and Ernst also expressed concern that agency whistleblowers, who had revealed the long-term misconduct, were retaliated against by some within the ATF.

“As Director of the ATF and Acting Assistant Attorney General of JMD, you both should appreciate the actions of the brave and patriotic whistleblowers who risked their careers and livelihoods to stand up and do the right thing,” the letter stated. “That is why it is extremely concerning that our offices have received credible allegations that ATF engaged in retaliation against the whistleblowers who exposed ATF’s substantial waste, fraud, and abuse.

“If these allegations are true, we demand that the ATF cease retaliating against these whistleblowers, commit to not engage in future reprisal, and hold those employees accountable who engaged in the unlawful retaliation. Whistleblower retaliation is the enemy of a transparent government and corrective action must be taken against all those engaged in reprisal.”

The letter concluded with a list of eight questions, including: “What corrective action has DOJ and ATF taken to hold employees who misclassified these positions, or failed to correct the misclassification of these positions, accountable?”

Sens. Grassley and Ernst gave Dettelbach and Lauria a seven-day deadline for their responses.

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