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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Deputy Attorney General James Cole Involved in 'Fast & Furious' Whistleblower Cover-up?

Bea Edwards, July 19, 2011

Operation Fast and Furious (F&F) – a program run by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that allowed thousands of lethal weapons to cross the Mexican border – was apparently no secret among high-level political authorities at the Department of Justice (DOJ). Among those in the know? Newly-confirmed Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

Information is now seeping out about the political whiplash that secured a confirmation vote for Cole in exchange for the DOJ’s release of documents to Congress. In a supremely ironic twist, the documents ransomed by Cole’s confirmation strongly suggest that Cole himself was involved in the cover-up of F&F. 

To recap, James Cole is no stranger to serious misconduct occurring during his alleged “watch.” Cole was the “Independent Consultant" stationed at AIG by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) before, during and after the financial meltdown of 2008. Despite his oversight responsibilities, Cole looked the other way as the AIG Financial Products Division in London ran the corporation off the rails, ultimately driving the international economy off a cliff. The cost to US taxpayers of the AIG bailout was more than $150 billion.

Fast forward to January 2011. After President Obama installed Cole at DOJ as the Acting Deputy Attorney General through a recess appointment, Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Oversight & Government Reform Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-California) began asking Cole’s office for information about F&F. On January 27, Grassley wrote to ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson, requesting information. Four days later, Grassley again wrote to Melson about reports that whistleblowers on F&F were being silenced, stating “Rather than focusing on retaliating against whistleblowers, the ATF’s sole focus should be on finding and disclosing the truth as soon as possible."

There followed a chronology of false and misleading information from DOJ to Congress about F&F, and in March, Melson claims he told Cole that DOJ “[…]needed to reexamine how it was responding to the request for information from Congress.” Not long after this, Politico reported that Melson was about to ‘resign’ from ATF.

Grassley, of course, has crossed swords with Cole before. Through 2010 and into 2011, Grassley blocked Cole’s confirmation in part because Cole had failed in his oversight at AIG. In June, however, Grassleywithdrew his objection to Cole in exchange for information from the DOJ about F&F (Just for now, let’s ignore the dubious practice of forcing Congress to exchange votes for information from executive agencies about wrongdoing). Cole was then confirmed on June 27, and shortly after the vote, DOJ turned over documents about F&F to the Senate.

In the documents, Grassley discovered that Cole had been informed about F&F in March by Melson and had participated in concealing the details of the operation from Congressional investigators. A July 5thGrassley/Issa letter to Attorney General Eric Holder reads:

Mr. Melson provided documents months ago supporting his concerns [about Operation Fast and Furious] to the official in the ODAG [Office of the Deputy Attorney General] responsible for document production to the Committees, but those documents have not been provided to us.

Grassley and Issa also wrote that, according to Melson:

“[…] Justice Department officials directed them not to respond and took full control of replying to briefing and document requests from Congress. The result is that Congress only got the parts of the story that the Department wanted us to hear. If his [Melson’s] account is accurate, then ATF leadership appears to have been effectively muzzled while the DOJ sent over false denials and buried its head in the sand.”

Let's recap:

  1. Cole ignored or failed to recognize financial risk at AIG for years (while collecting a hefty fee).
  2. Grassley blocked his confirmation as Deputy Attorney General.
  3. Using a recess appointment, President Obama appointed Cole to Deputy Attorney General in December of last year, and Cole took up his position at DOJ.
  4. Cole’s office at DOJ withheld information from Congress about F&F at ATF, a program that allowed thousands of firearms bought in the US to fall into the hands of criminals in Mexico.
  5. In a deal with Democrats, Grassley agreed to allow a confirmation vote on Cole in exchange for access to information from DOJ about F&F. 
  6. Upon receiving that information, Grassley learned that a DOJ official partially responsible for withholding F&F details from Congress was … Cole himself.

Last week, on July 11, Grassley and Issa wrote again to Holder:

As our investigation into Operation Fast and Furious has progressed, we have learned that senior officials at the Department of Justice (DOJ), including Senate-confirmed political appointees, were unquestionably aware of the implementation of this reckless program […].

Grassley and Issa are now requesting e-mails to and from Cole, among others, as part of their investigation.

Let’s hope that they don’t have to make another deal with the devil – or with our  “Justice” Department – in order to get them.

Bea Edwards is the International Reform Director at the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.