A glimpse inside Obama / Holder DOJ = Pirate
The career path of former U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke can be charted through an ascending string of jobs from Arizona’s Supreme Court to the U.S. Senate, White House, Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department.
It is a resume that spans more than two decades in three branches of government.
Then, suddenly, it nose-dives on Aug. 30, 2011, when Burke resigned as U.S. attorney amid a scandal over a gun-smuggling case known as Operation Fast and Furious.
Since that day, the gregarious public servant has gone silent, and nearly invisible, except that his name appears prominently in Justice Department documents, congressional hearings and news reports.
Burke’s political downfall may have been shocking, but an Arizona Republic analysis of his career suggests that the cause — firearm politics — has been a pet theme through most of his 23 years in government.
The end came after federal records and testimony revealed that Burke last year pressed colleagues and superiors to deny that the Justice Department knowingly allowed guns to be smuggled into Mexico under his watch, and that two of those weapons wound up at the murder scene of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
In e-mail exchanges with DOJ officials, Burke incorrectly described allegations about Fast and Furious by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, as “categorically false.” He also reviled congressional investigators as “stooges” for gun-rights zealots.
Burke finally quit his post after testifying in secret to congressional investigators about the case.
He was not the only federal official to suffer fallout. At the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, national Director Kenneth Melson was reassigned and Arizona’s top agent, William Newell, was transferred. On Capitol Hill, Grassley called for the removal of Lanny Breuer, second in command of the Justice Department, and many in Congress have said Attorney General Eric Holder should be fired.
But, of all the officials caught up in America’s so-called “gun-walking” scandal, Dennis Kiernan Burke is the only one to lose his job.
A resignation letter to President Barack Obama said simply, “It is the right time to move on to pursue other aspects of my career and my life.”
The question: Has he hit bottom yet, and can he rise again?
‘A stand-up guy’
Since leaving his skyscraper office in downtown Phoenix, Burke has turned down all interview requests, leaving his lawyers to describe him as a “stand-up guy” who didn’t intentionally mislead Congress or the public.
An inspector general probe is still under way, as well as congressional investigations.
Friends say Burke, who had been touted as a possible candidate for governor or Congress, is lying low, volunteering full time with a rape-crisis network and playing golf. All of them speak of him with glowing adjectives: articulate, positive, hardworking, decent, funny, loyal.
“He doesn’t have enemies,” said Robbie Aiken, a longtime friend and vice president for federal affairs with Pinnacle West Capital Corp. “All the things he’s done, yet I’ve never really heard anybody say anything negative about him.”
But there are critics, especially among staunch Second Amendment advocates, who paint Burke as a liberal apparatchik who was willing to let criminals move weapons to Mexican cartels if it would help justify new firearms restrictions.
“It’s no coincidence that Dennis Burke, a longtime anti-gun policy person, was made U.S. Attorney in mid-2009 … the same month (sic) that Fast and Furious begins,” said Mike Vanderboegh, a gun-rights blogger. “They picked precisely the right guy to run a clandestine program.” (The operation began a month after Burke’s appointment was confirmed.)
Curiously, the supporters and detractors agree on one point: They say Burke became a scapegoat to protect higher officials in the Justice Department or White House. Dave Workman, a gun-rights blogger, described Burke as “the chief sacrificial lamb.”
Sen. Grassley, in an October statement, said: “Mr. Burke is to be commended, to some extent, for being the only person to resign and take responsibility for the failed operation. Of course, I do not believe he should feel obligated to be the only fall guy.”
Phoenix attorney Andy Gordon, a close friend for nearly two decades, said Burke may be loyal to a fault, protecting higher-ups in the Justice Department. “DOJ threw him under the bus. That’s my view,” Gordon said.
Another friend, attorney Tim Nelson, said: “I don’t know the workings of the Obama administration, whether they were looking for a fall guy or what. But it certainly looks that way.”
Whether those evaluations are valid or not, associates agree Burke was devastated to lose a dream job and see his reputation tainted by scandal.
Kevin Burke, an older brother who serves as a county judge in Minnesota, said Dennis is focused on defending himself as investigations continue.
“He’s certainly bummed,” Judge Burke said. “You want people to understand what you did and why you did it.” Asked if Dennis privately admits to making mistakes, Kevin answered, “I can categorically deny that. The idea that he is going around saying, ‘Boy, I really screwed up’? He’s never told me that.”
Strong work ethic and ambition
Since Dennis Burke got his law degree at the University of Arizona in 1988, he has flourished in high-profile government jobs, handling politicians, journalists, lobbyists and lawyers with aplomb.
Born in 1962 in Chicago, the last of five children in an Irish-Catholic home, Burke once credited his immigrant grandfather with instilling a work ethic to match ambitions. When Dennis was just a boy, the family moved to Phoenix, where he attended Catholic schools. (As an adult, he once said his life motto was “Love your neighbor as you do yourself” because “several nuns beat that into my head in grade school.”)
After graduation from Brophy College Preparatory, Burke earned a bachelor’s degree at Georgetown University and got an early taste of national politics by serving as an intern for U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn.
“He was kind of bitten by the Hill bug,” said Kevin Burke, who is president of the American Judges Association.
Former Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., who hired Burke from law school as a congressional intern, said the student stood out for legal smarts and people skills. “Just really bright,” DeConcini said, “and he was good with Republicans.”
Fresh out of law school, Burke won a coveted position as clerk with the Arizona Supreme Court under Justice James Moeller.
Then, in 1989, he was hired as a low-level staff lawyer at the U.S. Senate. Within a year — at age 27 — Burke was assigned to the Judiciary Committee, eventually playing a behind-the-scenes role in confirmation proceedings for three Supreme Court justices.
And he began working on gun control. DeConcini said Burke helped draft the Anti-Drug Assault Weapons Limitation Act of 1989. A five-year battle ensued, ending with President Bill Clinton signing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which made it a federal offense to possess certain semiautomatic rifles manufactured after the law’s passage.
DeConcini said Burke fostered the measure in concert with a key figure in the White House, policy analyst Rahm Emanuel, who years later would become chief of staff for President Obama. Emanuel now is mayor of Chicago.
“Dennis was the one who worked with everyone on the Judiciary Committee to line up these members and votes,” DeConcini said. “Dennis had all these pictures of these guns — the Streetsweepers and the AK-47s. And it passed by one vote. A lot of it was not my eloquence on the bill, it was stuff that Dennis had done.”
The law was adopted shortly before Burke left his Senate job for a position in the Clinton White House as a senior policy analyst for law enforcement and drug issues, again working with Emanuel.
According to preserved e-mails, Burke continued handling firearm issues, discussing whether executive orders could be used to extend the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act requirement for background checks.
In 1997, Burke became a federal prosecutor under U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano, getting firsthand experience with Mexican syndicates that were smuggling narcotics and firearms. In an interview that year with the Arizona Business Gazette, he identified earlier gun-regulation efforts as the most fulfilling professional assignment he’d undertaken.
Over the next decade, he served as a chief deputy to Napolitano as she became Arizona attorney general, governor and then director of Homeland Security, where he again dealt with gun-running into Mexico.
Fast and Furious launched
On July 10, 2009, President Obama named Burke as his nominee for U.S. attorney for Arizona. He was confirmed by unanimous consent in the Senate on Sept. 15 of that year.
From the beginning, there were huge controversies: Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s anti-immigration law, was under challenge in court. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office was being investigated for alleged civil-rights violations. Border security had become a political firefight, with Arizona as a funnel point for smuggling amid growing fear that Mexican violence would spill onto U.S. soil.
Authorities in both nations were blaming liberal U.S. gun laws for arming the cartels. The assault-weapons law had expired in 2004. Restoration of the statute had been on Obama’s platform, and Burke was among the public adherents.
During a news conference in 2010, Burke complained that scores of guns from Arizona were being recovered in Mexico. “We have a huge problem here. We have now become the gun locker of the Mexican drug cartels.” What Burke did not mention was that his prosecutors had allegedly instructed ATF agents to let some of those weapons “walk” across the border.
In fact, just one month after Burke’s appointment as U.S. attorney was confirmed by the Senate, Operation Fast and Furious was secretly launched in Arizona.
According to congressional testimony and DOJ records, the idea was to follow the firearms south so that drug lords who received them could be identified and prosecuted. Over a two-year period, smugglers moved as many as 1,400 weapons across the border. The problem: Those AK-47s and .50-caliber rifles were being used for mayhem in Mexico, and U.S. investigators had not devised a successful way to track them.
Agent Terry’s death
Burke’s supporters question whether he understood that the ATF strategy knowingly let guns into Mexico, but critics say e-mails and other Justice Department records indicate he knew exactly what was going on.
For example, an ATF memo in January 2010 says Burke was briefed in detail on Fast and Furious and expressed “full agreement” with a strategy allowing “the transfer of firearms to continue to take place … in order to further the investigation and allow for the identification of additional co-conspirators.”
In an April 2010 e-mail to a colleague, Burke predicted that the operation would have a huge public impact: “It’s going to bring a lot of attention to straw purchasers of assault weapons,” he wrote. “Some of these weapons bought by these clowns in Arizona have been directly traced to murders of elected officials in Mexico by the cartels, so Katie-bar-the-door when we unveil this baby.”
However, available Justice Department documents do not include any record where Burke explicitly acknowledged an awareness of the gun-walking strategy, and it is unclear whether he believed a furor would result because of the investigative tactic, or because so many U.S. firearms were responsible for Mexico’s cartel bloodshed.
At least some ATF agents bristled at the ATF operation, warning of potentially fatal consequences. Those predictions proved true on Dec. 14, 2010, when Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in a midnight shootout with bandits near Nogales. Within hours, Burke was notified that two guns found at the scene were linked to Fast and Furious.
A man, who bought them 11 months earlier at a Glendale firearms store, was promptly arrested on suspicion of illegal-weapons purchases, along with other gun-buy suspects. Yet, at a news conference announcing the busts, federal officials failed to reveal the link with Terry’s death and denied that guns had been allowed to “walk” as part of the case.
ATF agents, horrified at what happened, became whistle-blowers, leaking information to Congress. Last January, Sen. Grassley sent letters to ATF, alleging that the bureau had knowingly allowed guns into the hands of Mexican criminals and that two of those weapons were tied to Terry’s murder. Burke reacted by sending e-mails to DOJ colleagues denouncing the senator’s assertions as “categorical falsehoods.”
In early messages to DOJ superiors, he incorrectly claimed weapons found at the murder scene were purchased before Fast and Furious started. Later, he clarified that although Fast and Furious was under way, the buyer was not being surveilled at the time he bought them.
On Feb. 1,The Republic published the first mainstream news story on the gun-running scandal and about a congressional inquiry into Fast and Furious.
Burke e-mailed a top Justice Department official, complaining about the bad publicity and about Grassley’s letter. “They (ATF) got smoked today in the Arizona Republic. Just smoked,” he wrote. “They punted going on the record to deny completely fabricated assertions that cut at the heart of their agency and the mission of law enforcement.”
ATF and Justice officials spent three days arguing over language for a rebuttal to Grassley’s letter. Burke, who wanted a hard-line denial, complained bitterly to colleagues: “What is so offensive about this whole project is that Grassley’s staff, acting as willing stooges for the Gun Lobby, have attempted to distract from the incredible success in dismantling SWB (Southwest Border) gun trafficking operations,” he wrote. “Not uttering one word of rightful praise or thanks to ATF — but, instead, lobbing this reckless, despicable accusation that ATF is complicit in the murder of a federal law enforcement officer.”
In another missive, Burke wrote, “I am so personally outraged by Senator Grassley’s falsehoods. It is one of the lowest acts I have ever seen in politics.”
DOJ eventually issued a letter denouncing Grassley’s allegations about Fast and Furious as “false.”
Holder has since acknowledged that the senator’s assertions were true, and that Fast and Furious was a flawed operation. Spurred by those admissions, congressional investigators redoubled their efforts, digging up more records and questioning witnesses under oath. This past summer, Burke was called before congressional investigators for two closed-door interviews.
According to subsequently released excerpts, Burke acknowledged mistakes and accepted blame. “It should not have been done the way it was done,” he said, “and I want to take responsibility for that. And I’m not falling on my sword or trying to cover for anyone else.”
Attorneys Lee Stein and Chuck Rosenberg, who represent Burke, said their client did not intentionally provide false information to colleagues and superiors in the Justice Department.
“Dennis has cooperated with congressional investigators and the (Justice) Department’s inquiry into this matter,” Stein said. “He takes his public service seriously.”
Critics say the constellation of facts points to Burke as a ramrod behind Fast and Furious, working to provide political powder for more firearm regulations.
In a Dec. 18 post, Second Amendment blogger John Richardson wrote: “Looking at Burke’s background and his attitude towards gun rights and those who support them, I see this as even further confirmation that the intent of Operation Fast and Furious from the very beginning was to build support for another so-called assault-weapons ban. I just don’t think it was coincidental that Operation Fast and Furious was centered in Arizona.”
DeConcini, who has sought to help Burke behind the scenes with members of Congress, said such inferences are “totally unfair,” and he insisted that Burke did not learn of the gun-walking strategy until after Brian Terry’s death.
Kevin Burke said it is absurd to suggest that his brother came up with some “Machiavellian plan” to justify gun-control measures. He said Dennis was dedicated to stopping firearm deaths — not adding to them — and he would never have risked lives or his career on such a gambit.
David Steele, a political consultant and friend, agreed: “The Dennis Burke I know doesn’t engage in that kind of political triangulation,” he said. “The whole notion that he did this as a conspiracy for gun control is laughable.”
Investigations by Congress and the inspector general are ongoing.
Guns from Fast and Furious continue to surface at crimes scenes in Mexico and the United States.
The case against those accused of killing Brian Terry is sealed in federal court.
And Dennis Burke remains under a cloud.
His attorney Stein said the experience has been “sobering,” but Burke keeps busy volunteering with a rape-crisis network. “He’s really been using this time to reconnect with family and friends, and to try to get through all this and decide what he’ll do with the rest of his life,” Stein said.
Other friends say he understands how scandals work in the nation’s capital. “It’s a tough town,” said Aiken, who worked in the Reagan administration. “Dennis knows that. He’s a tough guy. And I suspect he’ll come out of this A-OK. (But) I don’t think he was treated altogether fairly.”