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‘I Smell Cash’: How the A.T.F. Spent Millions Unchecked

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Matt Apuzzo reports on corrupt practices in the Department of Justice (which occurred during the Obama administration):

For seven years, agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives followed an unwritten policy: If you needed to buy something for one of your cases, do not bother asking Washington. Talk to agents in Bristol, Va., who controlled a multimillion-dollar account unrestricted by Congress or the bureaucracy.

Need a flashy BMW for an undercover operation? Call Bristol.

A vending machine with a hidden camera? Bristol.

Travel expenses? Take this credit card. It’s on Bristol.

When The New York Times revealed the existence of the secret account in February, publicly available documents made it seem like the work of a few agents run amok. But thousands of pages of newly unsealed records reveal a widespread scheme — a highly unorthodox merger of an undercover law enforcement operation and a legitimate business. What began as a way to catch black-market cigarette dealers quickly transformed into a nearly untraceable A.T.F. slush fund that agents from around the country could tap.

The spending was not limited to investigative expenses. Two informants made $6 million each. One agent steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate, electronics and money to his church and his children’s sports teams, records show.

Federal law prohibits mixing government and private money. The A.T.F. now acknowledges it can point to no legal justification for the scheme. But far from reining in the spending, records show that supervisors at headquarters encouraged it by steering agents from around the country to Bristol.

Yet no one was ever prosecuted, Congress was only recently notified, and the Justice Department tried for years to keep the records secret. The Times intervened in an ongoing fraud lawsuit over the activity and successfully argued that a judge should unseal them. The documents tell a bizarre story of how federal agents set up shop inside a southern Virginia tobacco business, and treated its bank account as their own.

At least tens of millions of dollars moved through the account before it was shut down in 2013, but no one can say for sure how much. The government never tracked it.

THOMAS LESNAK, a veteran agent, operated out of a government office building tucked behind a Burger King in Bristol, a small city near the intersection of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Colleagues regarded him as fast-talking and likable. When he met suspects, he always came off as the good cop.

Mr. Lesnak specialized in investigating tobacco smuggling, one of the A.T.F.’s core missions. Though cigarettes are available at any corner store, they are extraordinarily profitable to smuggle. That’s because taxes are high and every state sets its own rates. Virginia charges $3 per carton. New York charges $43.50. The simplest scheme — buying cigarettes in Virginia and selling them tax-free in New York — can generate tens of thousands of dollars in illicit cash. By some estimates, more than half of New York’s cigarettes come from the black market.

The A.T.F. tried setting up front companies to infiltrate smuggling rings, but with limited success. Gangs and cartels were too smart to deal with companies that appeared out of thin air. Mr. Lesnak had a solution: Rather than pose as a real company, go into business with an existing one.

In late 2006, Mr. Lesnak persuaded Jason Carpenter, an established small-time Alabama tobacco distributor, to open a warehouse in Bristol, become an informant and let the A.T.F. operate alongside him. “We basically merged ourselves with a tobacco business,” Mr. Lesnak said last year in a confidential deposition.

“The idea was, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Mr. Carpenter said in a deposition. “And lo and behold,” he said, “they came.”

Would-be smugglers appeared, looking to buy untaxed cigarettes. Some offered cash. Others offered to trade stolen property or guns. Mr. Lesnak and Ryan Kaye, one of the agents involved in the operation, worked the floor. “It got to the point where we were, you know, warehouse workers as opposed to criminal investigators,” Mr. Lesnak said.

The A.T.F. allowed Mr. Carpenter and his business partner, Christopher Small, to conduct illicit tobacco sales in the hopes of catching criminals. Mr. Lesnak, Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Small declined repeated interview requests.

Normally, undercover operations run entirely on government money, from a government account that is reviewed by government auditors. But Mr. Carpenter was running a real company. Sometimes he worked for the government, sometimes for himself, and it was not always clear where the profits should go.

SO THE A.T.F. DEVISED A SOLUTION: When it was unclear where the money belonged, it went into a private account that Mr. Carpenter controlled. That kept the money outside the reach of Congress. Mr. Lesnak dictated all the spending and said he expected the government to balance the books at the end of the investigation. That never happened.

Mr. Kaye testified last year and was asked repeatedly who approved this arrangement and under what authority:

“I do not recall exactly who authorized that.”

“I wouldn’t call it ‘authorization.’ I would call it an ‘understanding.’”

“No authorization was needed.”

“I don’t know of a specific law that authorizes those specific activities.”

The secret fund became known as a “management account,” and word spread quickly among A.T.F. agents that if you needed something, Mr. Lesnak could get it without red tape. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 September 2017 at 11:35 am

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