The term “wasteful spending” is a dog whistle Republicans use to demonize minorities and the poor.
It’s right up there with “cutting taxes,” “tax reform,” “freedom,” and “choice.”
Whenever someone on the right uses the term “wasteful spending,” it almost always pertains to “entitlement programs,” another dog whistle; i.e., programs designed to provide economic help that people (mostly low-income) need to survive–Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, “Obamacare,” nutrition assistance programs, unemployment and disability benefits.
Of course there is wasteful spending. In any bureaucracy there is going to be some program or policy that at one time was necessary, but never seemed to adapt when the government instituted other policies to fill existing needs.
But show me a Republican who would be so audacious as to identify any wasteful spending in the Pentagon, the FBI, CIA, DEA, or ATF.
No, those agencies are just fine. “Don’t even think about criticizing law enforcement or our military, you commie bastard!” they say. “You wouldn’t want ISIS opening up shop on Fifth Avenue in front of Trump Tower selling crystal meth to underage Russian spies with concealed carry permits, would you?”
Well, now the proverbial cat is out of the bag.
It seems the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) for years maintained a slush fund its agents could tap virtually unchecked.
Wasteful spending? How about the $6 million two informants received for their personal use.
According to a piece in the New York Times:
“One agent steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate, electronics and money to his church and his children’s sports teams, records show.”
Federal law prohibits merging government and private money, and even the ATF now acknowledges it can’t legally justify the situation that cost so much taxpayer money.
Regardless, records show supervisors encouraged the behavior, directing agents all over the country to Bristol, Virginia, home of a multi-million dollar account Congress was not authorized to regulate.
As the Times piece reports:
“Need a flashy BMW for an undercover operation? Call Bristol. A vending machine with a hidden camera? Bristol. Travel expenses? Take this credit card. It’s on Bristol.”
Congress was only recently notified, the Justice Department for years tried to conceal the records, and no one was ever prosecuted.
Although no one can account for how much, the account reflected at least tens of millions of dollars before it was finally closed in 2013.
Perhaps no one will ever know since the government never tracked it.
Here’s what happened.
The ATF tried establishing front companies to try to infiltrate tobacco smuggling rings, but were basically unsuccessful.
So veteran ATF agent Thomas Lesnak proposed hiring small-time Alabama tobacco distributor Jason Carpenter as an informant. Carpenter would open a warehouse that would attract smugglers interested in acquiring untaxed cigarettes and allow the bureau to work beside him.
Some smugglers paid cash; others paid with stolen property or guns.
But then there was a problem. Mr. Carpenter was working for both the government and himself, and it was not always clear where his profits should go. He kept them then in a private account, outside of congressional view.
Agent Thomas Lesnak controlled the expenses, but expected the U.S. government to balance the books.
Ryan Kaye, one of the agents involved in the operation, when testifying last year about who authorized this situation, reported:
“I wouldn’t call it ‘authorization.’ I would call it an ‘understanding.’ No authorization was needed. I don’t know of a specific law that authorizes those specific activities.”
The ATF’s clandestine fund became known as a “management account.” Word spread among agents that if they needed something, Agent Lesnak was the man to get it without red tape.
According to Lesnak, senior Washington officials often sent agents for untraceable license plates and credit cards. Luxury cars were especially popular.
Christopher Small, one of the tobacco company employees involved in the operation, said in a deposition:
“We had so many vehicles that we actually set up a company just for leasing.”
Agents relied on the account for routine expenses, like hotel stays and fuel for their vehicles, which ran at times to $23,000 a month.
Mr. Small said:
“We had 14 or 15 agents carrying American Express cards that we paid the bill on.”
Records show Big South Wholesale, Jason Carpenter and Christoper Small’s company, became the national warehouse for all ATF smuggling investigations.
Seriously, if this were the Social Security Administration, the entire Republican Congress would hold a press conference in front of the Capitol claiming “proof” government is pissing away taxpayers’ hard-earned money (before high-tailing it back inside to try to ram through legislation to increase subsidies to fossil fuel corporations and the gun industry.)
Image credit: PiperReport.