For seven years, agents at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives followed an unwritten policy: If you needed to buy something for one of your cases, talk to agents in Bristol, Va., who controlled a multimillion-dollar account unrestricted by Congress or the bureaucracy, the New York Times reports. When the Times revealed the existence of the secret account in February, it seemed like the work of a few agents run amok. Newly unsealed records reveal an unorthodox merger of an undercover law enforcement operation and a legitimate business. What began as a way to catch black-market cigarette dealers transformed into a nearly untraceable ATF slush fund that agents 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 to his church and his children’s sports teams. Federal law prohibits mixing government and private money. The ATF can point to no legal justification for the scheme. Agency supervisors encouraged it by steering agents around the U.S. to Bristol. No one was ever prosecuted, 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. The account was closed in 2013.