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Audit: ATF lacks ‘adequate oversight’ of payments made to confidential informants

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The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lacks “adequate oversight” of the money it pays to confidential informants, according to a federal audit released Tuesday.

The Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General identified multiple issues with the ATF’s management of more than 1,800 confidential informants between 2012 and 2015 — including a clunky system of tracking payments made to the informants while working on investigations for the agency.

“The DOJ OIG’s review found that while ATF’s CI policies were generally aligned with the Attorney General’s Guidelines Regarding the Use of Confidential Informants (AG Guidelines), its oversight of its CI Program required significant improvement,” the office said in a press release Tuesday. “Because of the deficiencies we identified, we concluded that ATF was not able to administer its CI Program in a manner that is reflective of the importance of the program, or its risks.”

According to the audit, control agents record payments made to informants through a paper trail of hard-copy documents “scattered” in multiple investigative files with no automated way of sorting through the information when necessary.

“We spoke with several control agents to determine whether agents tracked payments made to the CIs that they handled, and we learned that while some control agents maintained a log of each payment, this was not standard, and the method of record keeping was not consistent,” the audit says, noting the cases of five separate informants in which auditors could not reconcile how much the ATF actually paid them.

In one instance, documents pulled from the National CI Registry showed the agency paid “Informant C” more than $45,000 — half of the nearly $99,000 Informant C’s semiannual suitability memorandum indicated had been paid. Payment documents gathered from the informant’s investigative files totaled just $70,000.

“We are concerned about the possible implications of ATF’s CI payment tracking methods,” the audit says. “For example, during our audit, when ATF needed total payment information for a CI, such as for trial preparation, a CI’s control agent had to examine all of the payment documents that were scattered through every investigative file for all of the cases for which a CI provided assistance. Through this manual and cumbersome method, there is an increased risk that an agent might have calculated incorrectly the total amount paid due to errors or omissions in the CI investigative file, inability to identify all investigations worked by the CI, or the entry of incorrect amounts.”

The findings corresponded with the agency’s overall “compartmentalized” record keeping system “that depends heavily on hard copy files.”

“As a result, ATF could not efficiently obtain accurate and complete information about its program as a whole and therefore could not manage the program efficiently or judge the overall value of informants,” said Michael Horowitz, the DOJ’s inspector general in a recorded statement Tuesday.

The agency, according to the audit, agreed its tracking system was “in need of improvement.”

“ATF has already modernized its CI record keeping system and has specific plans to add additional enhancements to the new, automated system in the immediate future,” the agency said, noting the implementation of its Confidential Informant Master Registry and Reporting System in October 2016. “ATF will continue using CIMRRS with features to provide additional layers of oversight for managers, improved tracking for other special categories of CIs, as well as improved historical data preservation.”

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