The ATF has settled a claim from the landlord of the building where the agency ran a troubled undercover sting in Milwaukee last year, leaving behind broken doors and walls, unpaid utility bills and damaged carpeting from an overflowing toilet.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives closed its phony store, called Fearless Distributing, in October after an agent’s guns, including an automatic machine gun, were stolen from his vehicle. Then, the storefront was burglarized of $40,000 in merchandise. The stolen machine gun remains missing.
The landlord, David Salkin, asked the ATF to pay to cover damage to the building and unpaid utility bills. ATF supervisors in Milwaukee and regional headquarters in St. Paul refused.
When Salkin pressed his case, an ATF attorney warned him to stop contacting the agency or it may be considered threatening a federal agent.
A Journal Sentinel investigation exposed the rift between Salkin and the ATF — along with the many other foul-ups and failures of Operation Fearless.
After the investigation, a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers demanded answers and acting ATF director Todd Jones ordered an internal investigation, which found that the sting failed in nearly a dozen ways. The ATF has refused to release its internal report, even to members of Congress.
Salkin said he settled because he wanted to end the fight with ATF and move on. He has since sold the building, located in the Riverwest neighborhood on E. Meinecke Ave.
Salkin, who unknowingly rented to the agency, said the episode has made him distrustful.
He said he is still upset that the agents put him and his son in harm’s way. Both were at the building several times when ATF customers — felons selling guns and drugs — were inside. After ATF cleared out, Salkin encountered customers looking to do business at Fearless.
“I feel like I was taken advantage in this whole thing,” Salkin said.
The ATF entered into settlement discussions with Salkin after the Journal Sentinel reported on the operation. Salkin said he received more than his original estimate of $15,000 damages, unpaid bills and lost rent but less than his formal claim of nearly $40,000.
Salkin declined to give an exact amount.
In an email, ATF spokeswoman Ginger Colbrun declined to comment: “ATF as a matter of policy does not comment on whether or not settlements have been reached.”
Salkin listed his building for rent in late 2011 on Craigslist. He was contacted by the agents, working in an undercover capacity, including Special Agent Jacqueline Sutton, who was in charge of the operation. They told Salkin they wanted to sell clothing and accessories from the former sign-making operation.
At one point, Salkin said he told Sutton he was cutting off the phone line, through which the burglar alarm operated. But Sutton and the others never reconnected the alarm, leaving the building unguarded and vulnerable when burglars ripped off the place, ATF officials told congressional staffers in a meeting earlier this year.
After the burglary in October, Salkin learned what had been happening in his building. Salkin also discovered that the ATF left behind a sensitive document listing names, phone numbers and vehicle information of undercover agents. Agents also were growing marijuana in the store, apparently as a “prop,” and left the plant behind.
He said he asked ATF officials to settle up and they promised to pay him in December.
But when Salkin met with George Lauder, then-head of the Milwaukee office, the agency’s offer was only to let Salkin keep his security deposit of $3,200.
The goal of the Fearless operation was to go after violent criminals, but in the end agents largely nabbed low-level street hustlers. Agents arrested four of the wrong people and three were charged. The state prosecutor quickly dismissed those charges.