Senate seeks review of Battaglia action

Order follows ATF agents' charges of retaliation

September 22, 2000|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

The head of the Senate Judiciary Committee has directed two federal agencies to investigate whether the U.S. attorney for Maryland retaliated against agents who gave gun crime statistics to a member of Congress.

The request by Utah Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch comes after three agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' Baltimore office were told they face an internal affairs inquiry prompted by complaints from U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia.

Battaglia denies asking ATF for an internal investigation or retaliating against the agents in any way. She said in an interview yesterday that the escalating feud is fueled by politics and has detracted from efforts by both offices to reduce Baltimore gun violence.

"All of these allegations are overshadowing the work of the ATF, the Baltimore city police and the U.S. attorney's office," Battaglia said.

She said she was not aware of the investigation ordered this week by Hatch, the latest development in an increasingly high-stakes dispute over gun-crime prosecutions in Baltimore.

For months, Battaglia has been locked in a political feud with Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. over the best way to crack down on gun crimes.

Battaglia says a program she started in 1994 called Project Disarm has helped curb crime by getting stiff prison sentences for felons caught carrying guns.

Ehrlich, a Baltimore County Republican, has said federal prosecutors should take on far more cases.

Their dispute spilled over to the local ATF office in the spring when Ehrlich asked agents for statistics on federal gun-crime prosecutions. Larry D. Stewart, special agent in charge of the ATF office, provided the numbers after checking with his supervisors in Washington.

In a sworn statement he provided this month to ATF internal affairs, Stewart said his report seemed to set off a firestorm. He said Battaglia threatened him with a transfer and budget cuts because she thought the numbers provided to Ehrlich underrepresented her office's efforts.

"I'm going to get you, and I'm going to get ATF," Stewart quotes Battaglia as telling him in his affidavit Sept. 11. According to Stewart's statement, Battaglia added: "I used to work as Senator Barbara Mikulski's chief of staff, and I'm going to get ATF's budget reduced, and I'm going to get you transferred out of here."

Battaglia acknowledged talking to Stewart about his report to Ehrlich because she thought it should have included additional information. But, she said, "I never threatened anybody."

Soon after, Battaglia told Stewart that his agents no longer would be involved in screening gun cases - a move Battaglia described as for efficiency and which Ehrlich denounced as retaliatory.

That led to meetings between Battaglia and top ATF officials in Washington. Soon after, the Baltimore agents were told they faced an internal affairs inquiry for allegedly conspiring to undermine Battaglia's office.

Battaglia said yesterday she didn't instigate the internal affairs review. "I didn't go over there to request an investigation of anybody," she said.

Stewart and other ATF agents in Baltimore have been ordered not to comment. Richard J. Gallo, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said the agents were relieved to see Hatch's request for an inquiry.

Hatch gave the inspectors general at the departments of Justice and Treasury six weeks to report why the three agents are under review. "If you find that these agents are not being retaliated against, please describe in detail the basis for the internal investigation," Hatch said in letters to the two agencies dated Monday.

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