Politics
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Issa, Grassley blast Holder in letter after secret meeting with ATF’s Ken Melson

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Matthew Boyle
Investigative Reporter

Top Republican lawmakers have authored an explosive new letter containing details of secret testimony by acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson, which reveal for the first time the extent to which his agency was involved in an international gun selling scandal.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, fired off the letter to Attorney General Eric Holder Tuesday detailing what Melson told Congressional investigators in a secret July 4 testimony.

One key takeaway from the meeting was that Melson acknowledged to investigators that agents had witnessed transfers of weapons from straw purchasers to third parties without following the guns afterwards. Straw purchasers are people who could technically legally buy guns in the U.S. but their intent was to turn around and sell them to drug cartels in Mexico.

Another point Melson clarified for investigators was that the ATF group carrying out the mission of Operation Fast and Furious was placed under the direction of the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s office. The U.S. Attorney in Arizona, Dennis Burke, is a political appointee of the Obama administration.

Melson appeared with only his personal attorney at the secret meeting with Congressional investigators. Melson was originally scheduled to conduct the interview on July 13 with Justice Department attorneys and his personal attorney present, but Melson abandoned DOJ representation after learning of a provision in his agreement to testify that allowed him to do so. (Issa staffer: Gunrunner investigation points much higher than ATF director)

“We are disappointed that no one had previously informed him of that provision of the agreement,” Issa and Grassley wrote to Holder on Tuesday afternoon. “Instead, Justice Department officials sought to limit and control his communications with Congress. This is yet another example of why direct communications with Congress are so important and are protected by law.”

Issa and Grassley wrote that Melson’s interview “was extremely helpful to our investigation.” They said Melson told them he did not review the “hundreds of documents” the DOJ is withholding until after the public controversy about the operation. Issa and Grassley said Melson claims he was “sick to his stomach” when he obtained the documents and learned the full story.

The DOJ has not been fully cooperative with a number of Issa’s and Grassley’s requests for documents and other evidence in this investigation. According to the July 5 letter, Issa and Grassley said Melson told them he asked the Office of the Deputy Attorney General (ODAG) to be more cooperative with Congressional requests for information, evidence and documents.

Their letter also details how Melson told Issa and Grassley that he and other senior ATF officials moved to reassign every major official involved in Operation Fast and Furious. Melson said Obama administration Justice Department officials directed him and other ATF officials to not communicate to Congress the reasoning behind the reassignments.

The ultimate point behind Issa’s and Grassley’s letter to Holder was to request Melson be provided with the protections that bureaucratic whistleblowers normally enjoy. Because Melson, a longtime career government employee, now serves as a political appointee of the Obama administration, he doesn’t automatically enjoy whistleblower protections.

In recent weeks, rumors have floated throughout the press that Melson was going to resign his post as acting ATF Director. Melson told Congressional investigators on July 4, though, that those reports were “untrue.”

“Technically, Mr. Melson no longer enjoys the due process protections afforded to career officials,” Issa and Grassley wrote. “Given his testimony, unless a permanent director is confirmed, it would be inappropriate for the Justice Department to take action against him that could have the effect of intimidating others who might want to provide additional information to the Committees.”

Melson also confirmed many suspicions Issa and Grassley had of the existence of documents and other evidence in Justice Department possession. The Republican members called on Holder to be more transparent and honest in responses to their requests for information, and that DOJ officials should be informed of their right to communicate with Congressional committees without Holder’s oversight.

“We hope that the Department will take a much more candid and forthcoming approach in addressing these very serious matters with the Committee,” Issa and Grassley wrote. “If other important fact witnesses like Mr. Melson have a desire to communicate directly with the Committees they should be informed that they are free to do so. They should also be notified that if they are represented by personal counsel, they may appear with personal counsel rather than with Department lawyers.”