Former Arizona U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton Says He Trusted ATF Official in "Fast and Furious" Predecessor Operation; Got Memo on Gunwalking

Former Arizona U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton says he trusted the word of a federal firearms officials who told him in 2006 that a gunwalking operation wouldn't result in missing weapons.

The President Bush-era operation, known as Wide Receiver, reportedly lost about 400 guns in a manner similar to that of the scandalous Operation Fast and Furious. In both operations, the U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives bureau allowed drug cartel suspects to purchase weapons in Arizona gun stores, then allowed the guns to "walk" -- the idea being that they would later be tracked and provide intelligence that could lead to the bust of drug kingpins. Hundreds of guns were "walked" under the Fast and Furious program, and some of them are now turning at crime scenes in Arizona, Mexico and elsewhere. Last December, two of the guns were linked to the slaying of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, leading to a political firestorm aimed at the Obama administration.

A Congressional investigation into the scandal has been going on for months.

Charlton received a memo about Wide Receiver in 2006, the New York Times reported yesterday.

Today, Charlton tells us that Bill Newell, who was the special agent in charge of the ATF's Arizona office at the time, told him in 2006 that the Wide Receiver "walked" guns would be recovered either in the United States or by Mexican authorities working with the ATF.

Asked why he believed the Mexican authorities could be trusted to do that, Charlton says, "Newell believed so. I took Bill at his word."

The NY Times article states that the 2006 memo to Charlton:

...showed that A.T.F. agents asked whether it would be an acceptable tactic if illegal weapons were given "to the criminals with A.T.F.'s knowledge and/or participation, to be released into the community, and possibly into Mexico."

The memorandum said that A.T.F.'s counsel had objected, "citing moral objections." The documents do not show what Mr. Charlton replied, but about 400 guns disappeared as part of Wide Receiver, officials have said.

Charlton tells New Times that he doesn't remember approving Wide Receiver.

And Jennifer Maldonado, a former assistant U.S. attorney working under him at the time, who wrote the memo to Charlton, says she doesn't know what happened to the investigation.

"My belief is that it was denied," says Maldonado, now a Tucson defense attorney. "I don't recall having any knowledge of any guns that disappeared."

We asked Maldonado, who had worked in the U.S. Attorney's Tucson division, why she thought the request to move forward with Wide Receiver was denied. "Because it didn't happen," she says.

She adds that she had no knowledge of any active gunwalking operation until she left the office in November of 2007. Charlton was dismissed from his job in December of 2006 along with six other U.S. Attorneys in what many saw as political maneuvering by the Bush Administration.

Maldonado talked about Wide Receiver with ATF agents at the time, she recalls, discussing whether the ATF would have someone working the San Diego area to monitor the guns and the people who had purchased them.

"Thank god we never did it," Maldonado says.

Yet as you probably figured out by now, Maldonado's statements conflict with the statements of ATF officials about the timing of Wide Receiver.

Neither Charlton nor Maldonado could shed much light on that discrepancy. Maldonado says she doesn't believe the ATF "acted alone," especially since the 2006 memo makes it clear the ATF was seeking approval.

Whenever Operation Wide Receiver took place, it shouldn't have, Charlton says firmly.

Now a shareholder and practicing attorney at Gallagher and Kennedy in Phoenix, Charlton says he's not about to shirk responsibility for any decisions he made as a U.S. Attorney and invites investigators to follow wherever the gunwalking probe leads.

As the NY Times noted, Charlton is currently representing the family of Brian Terry in a lawsuit against the government.

Charlton tells New Times today that he will soon turn over the case to one of his partners, just to make sure the Terry family doesn't feel like he's becoming a sideshow to their case.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of Arizona sheriffs demanded that the Obama Administration be held accountable for Fast and Furious.

When asked by a reporter at the time about Wide Receiver, Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever said he knew nothing about it.

The implication was that Bush and his advisors might also be culpable by extension in the Fast and Furious scandal, a fact that could draw some of the fire away from Obama. Of course, the problem for Obama and his Attorney General, Eric Holder, is that they're ones in office now.

Today, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, (who has his eyes on a seat in Congress), announced that two Fast and Furious guns were recovered as part of a recent bust of a major drug ring.

A CBS news article that posted this evening, meanwhile, reveals that Justice Department officials thought Operation Wide Receiver wouldn't make good press, despite its supposed successes:

"Why did we decide not to do any press (even a press release) on it?" wrote Mythili Raman, Chief of Staff to the head of Justice's Criminal Division.

"Lots of guns allowed to go south," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein replied. "(we) agreed the case would be weaved into anti-ATF story."

This investigation will obviously go on for a while longer.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern