Once its Star, Agent Assails ATF

Also see: "Federal Agent who Penetrated Hells Angels 'Fears for His Life'"

Leaders dispute picture of a bureau run amok
Dennis Wagner
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 14, 2007

Jay Dobyns is no stranger to dangerous adversaries.

Within days of becoming a sworn agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Dobyns was taken hostage and shot during a Tucson sting operation.

A year later, he was run over by gangsters in a getaway car.

Since then, he has gone undercover to bust bombmakers, murderers, drug dealers, gunrunners and prison thugs. Three years ago, he infiltrated the Hells Angels so completely that he was offered membership in the biker club. Now, after nearly two decades of service, after being praised by ATF as a hero and earning national awards, the man known as "Jaybird" is battling his most formidable foe yet: his employer.

Dobyns, 45, is one of dozens of current and former agents to allege mismanagement and misconduct in the ATF, a federal agency responsible for enforcing America's gun laws and preventing terrorist bombings. More than a dozen lawsuits, administrative claims, grievances, ATF documents and letters to Congress reviewed by The Arizona Republic accused administrators of betraying their own field investigators and operatives out of arrogance or incompetence.

A 2006 inspector general's report also found that the agency was plagued by poor management and questionable judgment. The ATF director resigned amid the inspector general's investigation. But agents, lawyers and experts say problems persist, and if left unchecked, a troubled agency will continue to spin out of control.

"The public needs to know," said Kay Kubicki, a Detroit attorney and former agent who has represented about 25 ATF employees in cases against the bureau, winning half of them and obtaining settlements in some others. "This has a lot to do with homeland security."

Claims of abuse

In grievances filed with the ATF, Dobyns claimed the agency failed to protect him when he was threatened in the line of duty and then harassed him when he complained about the lack of security. He has submitted a multimillion-dollar claim alleging the bureau ignored death threats against him and his family.

According to a grievance Dobyns filed in May, ATF administrators sought to undermine his credibility by spreading false allegations that he was psychologically unfit for duty and a danger to himself or others. Dobyns alleged in that 83-page record that he was subjected to unwanted transfers, denied security, accused of fraud and blocked from getting a Medal of Valor.

In internal probes, the ATF has dismissed most of Dobyns' complaints.

Dobyns' allegations were lodged first in ATF grievances, followed by complaints to the Justice Department's Inspector General's Office, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and members of Congress. According to those filings, the conflict escalated as Dobyns challenged bosses, complaining up the chain of command.

Other bureau employees, some of whom have similar problems with the ATF, say Dobyns' transformation from hero to scapegoat is just one example of mismanagement that pervades the agency.

ATF Acting Director Michael J. Sullivan declined to speak about Dobyns' complaints, related investigations or allegations about the agency but said he believes the bureau is "working very hard to carry out a mission on behalf of the American people."

Sullivan believes no other federal law enforcement agency provides taxpayers with a greater return per agent when it comes to arrests and convictions. Field agents, he said, make that possible.

Their security "should be one of our highest priorities," Sullivan said. "This is their agency. . . . If there are things that aren't working well, we should know that and do everything we can to correct it."

But Kubicki claimed managers routinely abuse their authority and are more interested in self-promotion than ATF's mission. "There's a saying in ATF: 'Big cases, big problems. Little cases, little problems. No cases, no problems,' " she said. "But you're supposed to do big cases in the federal government."

Others say the ATF, with about 5,000 employees and a $980 million budget, is foundering due to ethical failures, rogue investigations, spending abuses and decaying morale.

Vincent Cefalu of Modesto, Calif., a 20-year agent with grievances pending, recently sent a letter to Sullivan complaining about "unethical practices and widespread distrust."

Cefalu accused administrators of "wasting thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars" because internal investigations are mismanaged.

Billy Queen, a former agent who wrote Under and Alone, a book about his infiltration of the Mongols biker gang, said he retired in 2003 after enduring four years of harassment from ATF administration. Queen said he still loves the bureau but believes it is beleaguered by incompetent bully managers.

Such criticisms are supported, at least in part, by the government. A 173-page inspector general's report faulted former ATF Director Carl Truscott, who resigned in August, for misconduct.

Among the conclusions: Truscott overspent on a lavish new headquarters, improperly used employees to help with his nephew's high school documentary and squandered resources on a personal protection team. Perhaps more telling than that behavior, according to the report, was Truscott's dishonesty and finger-pointing when confronted.

The inspector general's probe was prompted by an anonymous letter written by midlevel managers at the ATF, assailing their boss. In the aftermath, line agents wrote a second letter saying those supervisors were equally guilty of mismanagement.

The condemnations are hardly new. In a blistering 1995 report, Time magazine described the ATF as "the most hated federal agency in America . . . a divided and troubled agency far more likely to abuse the rights of its own employees than those of law-abiding citizens." The overall finding: The ATF's in-house scandals and abuses impaired its law enforcement mission.

ATF missteps

Last month, Dobyns' attorney, James B. Reed of Phoenix, filed a $3.3 million claim, preliminary to a lawsuit, with ATF headquarters.

Reed wrote that Dobyns was damaged by over 50 acts of "mismanagement, retaliation, harassment and defamation."

An 83-page grievance submitted in May to Edgar Domenech, ATF deputy director, said the problems started after a series of murder plots against Dobyns by the Hells Angels and other criminal outfits.

The grievance said that after the threats came in, the ATF's Office of Operations Security prepared a risk analysis, placing the danger level at "critical." A list of safety measures was drawn up. Yet, according to Dobyns' filings, administrators disputed the danger and denied protections.

"The ATF Field Division was clearly aware of threats," Dobyns wrote in his grievance. "This apathetic attitude . . . is, at a minimum, malfeasance of their office and a dereliction of their duties."

In one instance, Dobyns claimed, the ATF failed to warn him that a prison inmate had discussed plans to kill him and torture his teenage daughter.

"I have served ATF faithfully for over 19 years," Dobyns wrote. "For this, I have been subjected to a calculated attack by members of ATF management."

In a Nov. 20 letter to Dobyns marked, "Notice of grievance decision," Domenech said "many parts of ATF failed to maintain open and effective communication with you" regarding threats. He also acknowledged "significant issues in carrying out appropriate risk assessment procedures."

Despite that, Domenech concluded, the mistakes were unintentional, and the bureau had "implemented new policies and procedures to redouble its efforts in this regard."

"Therefore," Domenech said, "the personal relief that you seek . . . hereby is denied."

Dobyns, now on leave from the bureau, declined to publicly discuss details of his case beyond an e-mail statement:

"I have been honored to serve ATF. . . . Unfortunately, a wide gap has evolved between the management of the bureau and its front-line field agents. I have high hopes that our new acting director will be able to close that gap."

"I am now a man without a country," Dobyns added. "I am up against the crime syndicate that I infiltrated and the agency that abandoned me. . . . My family lives in fear."

Sheree Mixell, an ATF spokeswoman, said the bureau does not discuss pending investigations or personnel issues. But she noted that in a 2004 survey by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the ATF finished first among federal law enforcement agencies in employee satisfaction.

Bureau's star player

For most of his life, Jay Dobyns seemed comfortable living on the edge. At the University of Arizona, he was a star wide receiver, featured on the cover of the Wildcats team program in 1984.  After playing briefly in the Canadian league and now-defunct World Football League, Dobyns looked for an alternative career. Miami Vice lured him into law enforcement, and he chose the ATF because of its Gonzo-style investigations.

Over 18 years, Dobyns, tough, frenetic and profane, worked the Oklahoma City bombing case and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He captured a Mexican drug-cartel kingpin, busted Aryan Brotherhood gangsters and bought hand grenades from the Mexican Mafia. Finally, he infiltrated the Hells Angels in the Arizona case known as Operation Black Biscuit. Dobyns and several other operatives went underground for 21 months in one of the ATF's largest undercover investigations. It resulted in the indictment of 16 members and associates of the biker club.

But a strange thing happened once the charges got into court. ATF agents and federal prosecutors turned on one another. Explanations are conflicting. By one account, ATF agents failed to tell the U.S. Attorney's Office about key evidence and informers. By another, prosecutors received the materials but withheld them. Either way, the case collapsed last year. Most Arizona defendants were set free. The government dropped its key charge that the Hells Angels club is a racketeering enterprise. A Las Vegas trial ended with ignominy when the Hells Angels claimed victory.

ATF embarrassment grew.

And accusations about mismanagement in the agency mounted.

Amid the turmoil, a key informer named James "Pops" Blankinship went public, telling The Arizona Republic that Black Biscuit was a rogue operation. His allegations were followed by a $1 million lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court two months ago, claiming the ATF endangered his life, ruined him financially and misled him about the government's witness protection program.

The bureau has not responded.

Living in fear

Today, Blankinship is in hiding and at odds with the ATF.

Dobyns has moved his family and taken an alias. His damage claim listed a new threat allegedly issued by a Hells Angels member awaiting trial for murder. The claim said the inmate wrote jail mail to an associate describing how Dobyns could "end up getting AIDS from a dirty needle and die a slow miserable death . . . (or) he will get a bad dose of steroids, send a blood clot to his brain, have a stroke and be (expletive) retarded." There was also graphic wording about how Dobyns' wife could be tortured.

The damage claim said ATF supervisors learned of that threat just days before Domenech promised reforms yet failed to react appropriately.

"This letter is not mere musing by an incarcerated suspect," wrote Reed, Dobyns' attorney. "(The inmate) has demonstrated the ability, willingness and resources necessary" to have the acts carried out.

"For an agent who time and again placed his safety and life on the line for his agency, the failure of ATF to take protective measures on that agent's behalf against known, specific and credible threats from known criminals is unacceptable."

- Dennis Wagner


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