Oregon ATF operation led to arrests, controversy

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - A false storefront operation run by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives led to arrests in Portland and several other cities, but its methods have come under fire.

A series of reports from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last year pointed out problems with the program, including its use of mentally challenged informants.

A close look at the Portland operation that ended in March 2011 led to arrests of 48 people who sold guns and drugs to a fake store the ATF called "Squid's," The Oregonian reported.

But the $150,000 operation recovered only 10 stolen guns, none traced to a crime, and the store was near a middle school.

The U.S. Justice Department has tasked its inspector general to review ATF's conduct. And the ATF already has had to reform some of its tactics because of a recently completed internal review.

A day after the Journal Sentinel article ran in December, the ATF asked Inspector General Michael Horowitz to expand his examination of storefront stings in light of the news organization's investigation. An investigation was already underway by Horowitz, following a botched undercover sting in Milwaukee.

Agents in the national operation recruited mentally disabled individuals to promote their operations - including paying one to get a tattoo advertising their storefront - and later arrested them. Agents put stings near schools and churches, increasing arrest numbers and penalties, and attracting juveniles with free video games and alcohol.

Federal prosecutors in Oregon declined to bring penalties related to the transactions near a school, but some state prosecutors did use that tactic.

The agents in the national operation paid so much for guns that it encouraged burglaries of guns that were later resold to agents. In other cases, defendants sold guns just purchased from stores for a quick profit.

In Oregon, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Kerin says the operation was a success because it got guns off the street.

"When ... people are selling sawed off shotguns, you want those out of the community," Kerin said. "You have this violence just waiting to happen."

In contrast, defense attorneys say Operation Kraken employed outrageous tactics that tricked small-time offenders into felony conduct.

"They are the low hanging fruit. They are people that want to please others. They have disabilities, drug addiction, low mental functioning," said one of the defense lawyers, Andrew Kohlmetz. Federal agents "send these folks out to do their bidding. They put them in danger."

Federal Public Defender Steve Wax said agents at times appeared "overly aggressive."

Agents also came under fire for engaging mentally challenged individuals.

"It should have been apparent to the investigating agents in a number of instances that the people with whom they were dealing were of limited functioning ability," Wax said. "When that becomes apparent, one should question the extent to which they continued to work those people, to have those people continue to deal guns or deal drugs."

Kerin told The Oregonian prosecutors consider mental health issues, often first documented after defense attorneys arrange exams for their clients. He said the U.S. attorney's office considers individual circumstances in proceeding with plea offers and sentencing recommendations.

"It's the right and just thing to do," he said.