U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke resigned today with praise from Washington D.C. and no mention of Operation Fast and Furious, the disastrous and deadly gunrunning scandal that has plagued his office for months.
Burke’s resignation letter was vague in his reasoning to step down and so was his final message to his staff.
“I believe it is an appropriate time for me to step down so that the office can continue its progress under new leadership,” Burke wrote in his letter to President Obama.
And while U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder praised Burke for great progress in the pursuit of justice, his resignation came within days of his testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. It also came on the same day as the reassignment of Kenneth Melson, the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, which spearheaded Fast and Furious.
The fallout also struck the Arizona office internally.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley, who was prosecuting the Fast and Furious defendants, transferred to the office’s civil division at his own request.
Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation, who worked for the Department of Justice’s civil rights division for four years, said ATF would have needed some level of cooperation from Burke before embarking on the Fast and Furious operation.
“I don’t believe any U.S. attorney would approve an operation that goes across an international border without getting the approval of the higher-ups at the Justice Department, either the deputy attorney general … or the attorney general,” von Spakovsky said. “No U.S. attorney is going to do something that involves potential international repercussions without getting the approval of the AG or his deputy.”
U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, has said publicly that Burke was heavily involved in the year-long Fast and Furious operation, which saw ATF agents in Arizona allow criminals to purchase firearms from gun stores for use in drug trafficking. The idea was to track the weapons up the criminal hierarchy to make cases against major weapons traffickers.
Two of the rifles purchased in the operation were found at the crime scene in the Dec. 14 murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
The congressional investigation of the operation has turned up evidence that ATF lost track of many of the more than 2,000 guns linked to it.
ATF agents have testified that agents in Phoenix watched the purchases, but were told not to stop the illegal purchases.
In a statement released from his office, Issa suggested he wasn’t going to allow Burke and a few others to be the fall guys “for a matter that involved much higher levels of the Justice Department.”
“There are still many questions to be answered about what happened in the Operation Fast and Furious and who else bears responsibility, but these (resignations) are warranted and offer an opportunity for the Justice Department to explain the role other officials and offices played in the infamous efforts to allow weapons to flow to Mexican drug cartels,” Issa said in the statement.
Burke alluded to the operation in an October 2010 interview with the Arizona Capitol Times when asked about the current work of his office.
“I’m also the chair of the Southwest Border Committee, so I’m spending a lot of time now on southbound firearms and money and the cases and investigations we’re working on. We spend a lot of time with our counterparts in Mexico,” Burke said.
Former U.S. Attorney for Arizona, Jose de Jesus Rivera, said that despite the Fast and Furious fallout, Burke’s resignation can’t only be attributed to that.
Rivera pointed out that Burke has had the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a long-running investigation of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and the SB1070 lawsuit.
“Eventually, all these things start weighing on you,” Rivera said. “The job makes you old quickly.”
Burke came to Arizona to work as a prosecutor for U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano in 1997.
Rivera was Napolitano’s successor and was Burke’s boss for a short time before Burke followed Napolitano to the state Attorney General’s Office and eventually to be her chief of staff when she was elected governor.
He was chosen as U.S. Attorney for Arizona in October 2009.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.