Have Gun, Will Travel…Fast and Furious to Mexico. Thanks ATF!

Question: How do convicted felons repeatedly possess and distribute numerous guns without fear of arrest, let alone prosecution?

Answer: By purchasing guns from “straw purchasers,” who purchased the guns from gun dealers cooperating with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco,  Firearms and Explosives (ATF)- an agency within the United States Department of Justice- to permit gun sales without completion of the mandatory background checks or interdiction by agents.


Rep. Darrell Issa (R. Calif.), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R. Iowa), Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee,  have been conducting congressional hearings regarding guns being purchased in Phoenix, Arizona, by those who then resell the guns to Mexican drug cartel associates, all with the cooperation of the gun shop owners.

Why would a federal agency, whose mission statement is to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, conduct such an operation? As ATF spins it, the purpose of Operation Fast and Furious was to trace the distribution network to discover who are the end users/possessors of these guns.

The congressional hearings have disclosed that two other federal agencies within the Department of Justice may have been involved: the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Rep. Issa and Sen. Grassley continue to forge ahead in their investigation, and what has come to light is disturbing. Over 2,000 guns were permitted to cross over into Mexico unimpeded. And recent evidence has surfaced that some Mexican drug cartel members acted in an informant capacity against their competitors. And they were allowed to import cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States.

Didn’t ATF learn anything from the FBI’s spectacle in Boston Ma., when that agency developed its Top Echelon Informant Program designed to recruit informants within the ranks of street criminals? That program ultimately snared two highly-prized Irish mobsters: Whitey Bulger and Steve “the Rifleman” Flemmi.

These two serial killers were courted by FBI Agent John Connolly, who ran interference for Bulger and Flemmi while they continued their crime spree, decimating the Mafia in north Boston and placing a choke hold on Boston street crime.

To say the FBI was outmanuevered by streetwise Bulger and Flemmi is to recognize the obvious. Now history repeats itself in Phoenix.

 ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson has appeared before the committee with counsel. Why? Because evidence has surfaced that many ATF officials were in the loop, being routinely briefed on the “progress” of the program?

And,  Attorney General Holder has stonewalled the committee’s investigation. Why? Because many within Justice were aware of this debacle as it unfolded? 

As a criminal defense attorney for over 30 years, I have handled many federal prosecutions in and outside Minnesota involving ATF, DEA and FBI. I cannot fathom a defense where I contend my client didn’t intend to distribute guns or drugs; he only wanted to determine how wide-spread drug/gun possession was in his community. That is not a viable defense.

 And ATF’s explanation for the distribution and eventual recovery of a minimal number of guns is equally laughable.

So where does the congressional hearings go from here? Through the subpoena process the committee should be able to identify the crimes that were committed and who committed them. And then, to borrow a phrase from Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D. Cailf.), “drain the swamp.” That is, can you say “Indictment?”

How many guns have found their way into the hands of killers?

How much dope has found its way into our communities?

How many people have died because of the arrogant and misguided policy of the ATF?

I’m reminded that our President campaigned on a platform of transparency. He selected and supported Attorney General Holder who, I assume, shares the President’s core policy of transparency. Where is that transparency now?  Obama and Holder should have a heart-to-heart talk, maybe over a beer.

Light is the best disinfectant. Let the hearings go forward. Hold those accountable who were irresponsble in conceiving, implementing and protecting  this disasterous program. This is not about politics. It is about holding the ATF to its mission statement: prevent criminals from having guns. It is about holding the DEA to its mission statement: prevent illegal drugs from entering our communities. And it is about holding the FBI to its mission statement: to uphold and enforce the criminal laws of the United States.

But most importantly, it is about the United States Congress carrying out its obligation: to protect its citizens from rogue agents/agencies that believe they are above the law. 




Do you wanna buy meth, crack along with a slurpee at 7-11?

You may be able to purchase meth, marijuana and cocaine along with your favorite beverage at 7-11, if the Global Commission on Drug Policy has its way. The Commission’s report, recently  released,  advocates ending the “criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but do no harm to others.”

I applaud the Commission’s stance on grappling with a world-wide problem, but I believe legalizing these drugs is misguided. This high-profile panel includes luminaries from politics and renowned organizations, but not anyone who has had personal experience with the ravaging effects of street drugs.

Equally important is one of  the Commission’s  stated purposes in addressing this problem: Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.

The Commission appears to engage in a trade-off. That is, to curtail the drug cartels’ vise-grip on drug distribution, the Commission would encourage countries to regulate distribution of street drugs. As a former drug user and now as a criminal defense attorney, I know some things about drugs and their unintended effects.

I know that methadone is used for “maintenance.” How else can I explain why persons I grew up with and who were addicted to drugs switched  to methadone and now, 40 years later, are still getting their juice every week?

I know that persons I have represented who have abused drugs, particularly meth and crack, have destroyed their physical and mental health. And I know that most of these drugs have far reaching effects on the user’s family. From decimating the family unit-absentee parent, termination of parental rights, chemically dependent children-to stunting the deveopment of the family, nothing good comes from legalizing street drugs.

Except maybe curtailing the drug organizations’ cash cow.

As a nation we need to address how we work with chemically dependent people. Even the Obama administration recognizes the futility  in legalizing street drugs as reflected in the June 9, 2011, LA Times article regarding this country’s counter-narcotics policy. But we cannot forsake those addicted at the price of trying to eradicate drugs from our communities.

If we are more vigilant in combating the prevalence of street drugs, along with a responsible,  committed approach to drug treatment, then we will also recognize what anyone who has gone through treatment recognizes:  treatment does work.

Post Script to Apr.13, 2011, Post regarding Mn. Gov. Dayton's selection for Commissioner of Corrections

Yesterday,  I posted my opinion as to why I believe rehabilitation is not more successful in Minnesota. Although anecdotal and limited to Minnesota, one can extrapolate the consequences of poorly conceived and executed rehabilitation policies nationwide and witness the results.

Today,  I became aware of the Pew Center’s most recent study detailing recidivism rates state-by-state. Guess what? Minnesota has the highest recidivism rate (61%) of all states! And the national rate? 40% of felons return to prison within three years of being released to the streets. These are not statistics to be proud of, especially since so much money has been thrown at the problem.

These numbers are bothersome. But what is really disturbing is a quote from Mr. Jim Reams, a New Hampshire prosecutor, who apparently spoke on behalf of the National District Attorneys Assoc. regarding this study. His remark, partly  paraphrased, allegedly reflects a  common perception that people in prison are choir boys and if they were let out of prison, “all will be well.”

That opinion reflects a naivete certainly not shared by those working in the criminal justice system, or by the population as a whole.

  As a criminal defense attorney in Minnesota for the past 32 years, I have not known the National District Attorneys Assoc. to aggressively support any treatment-based alternatives to incarceration. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the prosecutor’s association listens intently to the law enforcement community, and that community strongly supports prison, not probation, for the majority of felons. And to take this a step further, I believe the association supported the implementation of sentencing guidelines that ushered in determinate sentencing. Why would they support determinate sentencing?  To limit the sentencing discretion of judges. What has been the effect of the guidelines in state and federal courts? To shift the power to prosecutors who, based on which crime is charged, can increase or decrease the severity level of the crime and, consequently, the sentence to be imposed.

It is a well-known fact that most of the money pouring into the prison system is for security, not rehabilitation. And the emphasis on most treatment programs is at the front end.  That is, while incarcerated. Relatively speaking, most of the  money is not allocated toward the transitional phase from these programs and back to the community when felons are most vulnerable. Felons need assistance in finding jobs, places to live just like the rest of us.

Until the criminal justice system- as a whole- takes a more realistic approach to grappling with the recurring problems felons encounter upon release from prison, the states’ recidivism rates will continue to remain inexcusably  high.

Treatment-based alternatives to prison and continuity of treatment through the transitional phase from prison to streetside for the majority of felons is sorely lacking. Why is this so difficult to see?

Mn. Governor Dayton steps into the sunlight of rehabilitation with his selection for Commissioner of Corrections

Mn. Gov. Dayton has selected Mr.Tom Roy, a veteran probation and parole officer to head the Mn. Dept. of Corrections. Wow! Finally, someone to lead state corrections who sees beyond retribution and confinement!

Let me share  Minnesota’s flirtation with prisoner rehabilitation. It’s a short chapter in “prison reform.”

In 1970 I sat in the auditorium at Red Wing State Training School for Boys in Red Wing, Mn., listening to Harry Vorath speak glowingly of the salient aspects of positive peer culture (“ppc”) introduced at the instituion. For the next 8-9 months I took part in the group therapy program. Obviously, it didn”t work for me as I was sitting in a prison cell a couple of years later, having been convicted of a commercial burglary.

Did it not work because there was no follow-up once I hit the streets? Once I was released from Red Wing I was on my own, save for periodic contact with a parole officer. However, when I entered St.Cloud Reformatory for Men in St.Cloud, Mn., it was a different story.

At St.Cloud I again took part in a ppc program. This time it was Project Newgate, a college-level program with its initial phase at St.Cloud and subsequent transition to the University of Minnesota Mpls. campus. After nine months in the prison program I was released to campus where I eventually completed my B.A. in political science and then a J.D. from Hamline University School of Law.

While in undergraduate school I participated in the Legal Advocacy Project representing inmates before disciplinary (“due process”) hearings in Stillwater Prison and St.Cloud Reformatory. I also filled the “ex-offender” slot for the Ramsey County (St.Paul, Mn.) Corrections Advisory Board.

It was during this period of time that I became aware of a disturbing trend: the inevitable rollback of funding for community corrections, which directly impacted such programs as Project Newgate that was essential to my surviving after being released from prison and going on to become an attorney.

I watched with increasing frustration as effective community programs appeared before the advisory board pleading for the ever shrinking dollar. From my perspective, the process was complete when the Minnesota legislature encted the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines that restricted the sentencing judge’s discretion and required application of a presumptive sentence based on severity level of the offense and the defendant’s criminal history score.

Many states, including the federal government, followed suit with their version of “equitable” sentencing policies. With determinate sentences,  there is little an inmate can do to secure an early release from prison. Sure, there has been a tweeking of the system to alleviate overcrowding in our prisons.

Maybe Gov. Dayton, through his commissioner- designate, can undue some of  the damage to our communities heaped upon us by having embraced this myopic and draconian view of “corrections.” If not, then we-as a nation- can continue to enjoy our well-deserved status as the country to lock up more people than any country in the world.

Off to war?

What is our position in Libya? And where is the money coming from to finance our involvement in this non-war?

How about taking the 50 million dollars it costs the United States each day to be in Libya and redirect it to our wars at home? The war on poverty. The war on environmental pollution. The war on crime, and the untold collateral consequences to communities.

What about more aggressive investment in our crumbling infrastructure? Our educational institutions? The homeless?

If we are going to spend money we don’t have, at least spend it where we get the greatest return. In my opinion, investing in our country can never be a mistake. I recall the late 60’s-early 70’s when there were many community-based  corrections programs that worked tirelessly to rehabilitate felons. 

These programs helped make the transition from prison to community easier. It was done through therapy, education and employment. But then the focus shifted from rehabilitation to retribution or, as one judge affectionately referred to it, “just desserts.”

As an ex-felon who had many tours of Minnesota’s juvenile and adult “correctional” institutions, and benefited from participating in a  community-based program that resulted in a pardon and eventually becoming a criminal defense attorney, I hope that we, as a society, can find our way.

Jobs for Ex-Offenders

There has been much discussion recently about Chicago Mayor Daley aggressively reaching out to unemployed felons. Wow!

It is indisbutable that most felons return to prison due to an inability to find stable, respectable work. This problem is only compounded by the irrefutable studies confirming what most reasonably intelligent people know: the vast majority of felons return to society.

It is not that Mayor Daley was the most enlightened public servant to recognize this phenomenon. Rather, he simply acknowledged the obvious. Felons, as all of us, are part of the essential fabric of society and recognize their concomitant responsibility to family and community.

And many of them, when given the opportunity, have become rehabilitated and are successful, contributing citizens.  They inspire the rest of us.

Charlie Sheen: Zone defense

As Charlie Sheen’s awkward and bizarre rantings are in full bloom-courtesy of the ever accommodating media-I’m left with the nagging issue of whether he is or is not in the midst of a psychotic breakdown fueled by drug abuse.

I don’t know if he is abusing drugs, but I recognize his behavior. No, I’m not a psychiatrist or a drug abuse interventionist. I am a criminal defense attorney who, as a teenager, wasted my years abusing most drugs-from herbs to chemicals and shoot -dope-punctuated by stints in juvenile and adult “correctional” facilities.

As I struggled to free myself from the shackles of chemical dependency, eventually completing a prison sentence followed by a govenor’s pardon and law school, I remember three incidents that I cannot forget. The first occurred while in prison at St.Cloud Reformatory for Men in St.Cloud, Mn. A person I’ll call Lenny approached my cell one day.  I’d known Lenny on the streets and we’d gotten high a few times together.

I’d noticed in the joint that Lenny was starting to act bizarre so I avoided him. One day I could not. As he approached my cell,  he looked up and down the galley and then said, “Hey, you got any speed?” I told him I didn’t do drugs anymore. He then said, “You ain’t got to do any or have any. Jus’ lemme touch your hand. I can get high from that!”

I simply dismissed Lenny as crazy and let it go.  Until it happened again. This time it occurred while I was attending the University of Minnesota working on my B.A. in political science. I had come out of prison through a community-based therapy program to attend college. While there I ran into an old partner who I had run with in the streets and had been locked down with  in the joint. Larry was going to the U of M as well, but now when I saw him his personality had changed dramatically. It was a warm summer day and Larry stood off the sidewalk, on the grass. He was wearing a judo uniform and his hair and beard were flowing down his shoulders.

When he saw me looking at him,  he asked how I was doing. “Fine,” I replied. He then asked if I wanted some energy to help me study.  I said no, believing he was referring to dope. He wasn’t. Instead, when I rejected the offer, he stated that he wanted me to reach to the sky with him and we could absorb the sun’s energy together.

The last encounter occurred when I bumped  into an old friend.  Michael had moved out of state, but now he was back. When I saw him, and after superficial talk,  he said to me, “Barry, you ever feel like you’re standing over there when you’re really standing over here?” He then  accused me of standing on his feet.  I abruptly ended the conversation and left Michael standing by himself.

All three persons  shared two traits. They all had been long-term drug abusers.  And  they tenaciously clung to their Zone where they had developed and nutured their alter ego-the hip, slick-talking , easy-go-lucky player living on the edge, while their loved ones died a little each day as they watched  him/her descend  into chaos and personal torment.

Intervention may or may not work. Charlie Sheen needs to get out of this Zone to survive. Hopefully, someone other than the media can reach him and he can wake up from what appears to be a drug-induced state.

Until someone connects  with Charlie Sheen, all one can do is wish him and his family well.