Justice Dept: ATF Lost 420 Million Cigarettes in Botched Stings


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An audit newly released by the U.S. Department of Justice has made public a series of mistakes from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, including 2.1 million missing cigarette cartons (or 420 million cigarettes) which disappeared during a series of stings, and almost $5 million was paid to an informant... for no documented reason.

The Washington Post quoted the Justice Department's inspector general who oversaw the audit, Michael E. Horowitz, as saying that the investigation "found a significant lack of oversight and controls to ensure that cash, cigarettes, equipment and other assets used... were accurately tracked, properly safeguarded and protected from misuse."

Horowitz's office looked at 20 different undercover stings conducted by the ATF between 2006 and 2011. Those stings netted the ATF a cool $162 million as it elected to prosecute cigarette smugglers. One case in particular saw $15 million in illegal cigarettes sold undercover, with $4.9 million allowed to be kept by an informant, no strings attached. He submitted no documentation as to why he needed the cash.

Of the cigarettes the ATF purchased for the operation, 2.1 million of almost 10 million cartons are unaccounted for. A spokeswoman for the ATF, Ginger Colbrun, defended her organization by saying that the numbers were inaccurate; that only 447,218 cartons were missing, not 2.1 million.

Although the audit was released today, the questions started with a pair of investigative reporters from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel who sought to check out an ATF operation in their city being run out of a cigarette warehouse called Fearless Distributing on the south side. The reporters discovered that in that operation, the ATF found themselves burglarized as two thieves (pictured above) stole $10,000 worth of cigarettes from the Fearless Distributing warehouse.

Only nine people were arrested as a result of the Milwaukee operation, and of those nine, only one got jail time. The reporters also discovered in the course of their investigation three major mistakes by the ATF, including using a brain-damaged man with the mind of a child to set up drug and gun deals and paying him with cash, cigarettes, and merchandise, and the occurrence of a second burglary of ATF property that led to the loss of three government-owned firearms including an automatic machine gun.

For more on the origins of the story, check out this YouTube video from the authors of the Journal Sentinel report.

[Image via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]