U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke’s Resignation

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In the wake of a botched gun trafficking operation conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona Dennis Burke resigned from the office he held since 2009. Former U.S. Attorney Jose de Jesus Rivera discusses Burke’s resignation and the job he did as U.S. Attorney.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The U.S. attorney for the district of Arizona, Dennis Burke, resigned today from the office he's held since 2009. The move appears to be tied to a gun trafficking operation that went wrong. Operation "Fast and Furious" was conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. It wound up sending guns from Arizona to criminals in Mexico and last December, one of those weapons was used to kill a U.S. border agent in our state. A congressional panel is looking into the operation and Burke had testified about his office's role in operation "Fast and Furious" just two weeks ago. There were other personnel moves today in the Justice Department, including the reassignment of the ATF's Interim Director. Joining me now to talk about this is Jose de Jesus Rivera, a former U.S. Attorney for Arizona who held the post during the Clinton administration. It's good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Jose de Jesus Rivera: Thanks for inviting me.

Ted Simons: The resignation today, was it a surprise?

Jose de Jesus Rivera: Yes. Absolutely.

Ted Simons: How come?

Jose de Jesus Rivera: Dennis has done a good job. He's also a Democrat, but he came into this office with a number of things on his plate, he handled them efficiently, with honor, with knowledge, and very transparent in the moves he did. I thought he was doing an excellent job for the amount of controversy and the amount of issues that are presently existing.

Ted Simons: And I want to get to some of those cases because there were a lot of things on his plate, but regarding this gun trafficking, "Fast and Furious," obviously a little set-up, any more we can talk about? Can you give an overview, what went wrong, what happened here?

Jose de Jesus Rivera: I don't know anything of the inside of how it worked because I've been out of the office for a while. But I think that if you look at the genesis of "Fast and Furious," it was I think it probably occurred after an inspector general report that complained about the fact that ATF was not going after bigger people, but only straw people buying the guns. I think somebody at some point in time made a decision that they were going to go higher up and try to go into the cartel into Mexico. And it didn't work. We've obviously seen with the tragic events that happened with Border Patrol Terry. The concept I think is a good idea. The implementation may have had some -- may leave something to be desired, but I think that's what happened.

Ted Simons: So basically the concept was, you get straw buyers, the little guys who buy the guns and follow them to the bigger guys, and find out where the drug trafficking and gun running operations go. Did the ATF just simply not have enough resources to do what they wanted to do?

Jose de Jesus Rivera: That would be pure speculation on my mind. I'm not sure if they terminated early, I'm not sure what the game plan was in terms of what -- any cooperation from Mexico, if you're going to trace them the trace goes beyond the border. It goes into the country of Mexico. And it's crucial that you get cooperation from Mexico to be able to trace these guns. I'm not sure to what extent they had that.

Ted Simons: Dennis Burke provided legal guidance on the operation. What does that mean?

Jose de Jesus Rivera: The U.S. Attorney has changed substantially since the years -- when I was an assistant U.S. attorney in the '70s, there was 12 of us. Now there's probably about 250 lawyers in the district, both throughout the state of Arizona, which is the district of Arizona. It's a complex district. It involves Native American issues, fraud, it involves anything, any federal law that's being violated, you have primary responsibility. You will always have a significant amount of Native American issues, a significant amount of border issues. It is the U.S. Attorney's decision whether to file these lawsuits or not. In the old days, the first input the U.S. Attorney would have is when an agent would bring the case to you. Now I think it's progressed, if you see you're doing something significant, you give them guidance. The agency guides in terms of what they can or cannot do with the direction of the investigation. So you give like above, a mile high kind of guidance to these people, and I think that's what the U.S. Attorney was doing in "Fast and Furious".

Ted Simons: Basically if an agency says this is our plan, this is what we plan on doing you can -- it's not your plan, you don't implement the plan, but you do say, "Here's what you can and can't do, should and should not do?" In general?

Jose de Jesus Rivera: In general I think that's an accurate assessment. It's not necessarily the agency-- it could be your--your case load comes from a number of people. It's generated within the state, it can be generated by the different agencies, they can regenerate locally from these agencies, it can be generated from D.C., it could be generated by an Attorney General Director from the Department of Justice. You've got to mix all that with a limited number of resources you have to be able to accomplish that.

Ted Simons: So with that in mind, and if you can, from a bit after distance here, how did Dennis Burke handle the fallout from the investigation, from the controversy, from what we eventually found out?

Jose de Jesus Rivera: I think he handled it the way he's handled his whole term in office: with honor, and transparency. He didn't hide the ball, he didn't try to hide the role of the United States Attorney's Office, he didn't try -- he did not try to hide the fact he this attorney was giving legal advice. When the controversy occurred he owned up to it. He owned up to the fact the U.S. Attorney's Office was given advice, he owned up to the fact one of the guns was used in the death of a patrolman. I think that nobody else could have handled it better than Dennis did.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, some people suggest he's a fall guy in all this. What do you think?

Jose de Jesus Rivera: You know, I think the decision that was made, Dennis made it. I don't -- I think he came to a point where there were so many things happening, and I think it was his decision that you needed fresh blood to look at these with different eyes. How the nation will perceive it as to whether he's a fall guy is a different story, but I don't think he's a fall guy for anybody, or ever will be a fall guy for anybody.

Ted Simons: We mentioned how much he personally has dealt with in the office, the Jared Loughner case, you've got border issues, you've got the Arpaio investigations, a lot of stuff going on here.

Jose de Jesus Rivera: Right. I mean SB 1070, all the Arpaio investigations, the Tom Horne attack on voting rights issue. I can tell you as much as I'd like to say I handled the complexities that Dennis had, I don't think there's been a U.S. Attorney in the history of Arizona that when he walked in had the number of cases, the complexity of the cases and they go through the whole spectrum. They're not all criminal, some of them are civil rights work, which I think the U.S. attorney, he did admirably stepping into that -- some of them are things that were thrust upon him by state of Arizona, some were thrust upon him by the Department of Justice. I think he handled them all well.

Ted Simons: If he handled them all that well, and this situation providing legal guidance and not necessarily -- I don't know how much he oversaw this particular operation, we really don't know that for sure, are you surprised he didn't stay and fight?

Jose de Jesus Rivera: You know, I think it -- I've told people who have asked me about this job, it's the greatest job in the world. You do more good for people than any other job I've ever seen. If you want to, you could stay there forever. On the other hand it's like the president. It wears on you and it tears on you, because you're looking at ten different problems every hour, not a day, but ten different problems every day. And I think that to his credit, he didn't want this issue to overwhelm what that office is. He wanted this office to continue to do the good work that they're doing, and not be caught up in the controversy of what he did or did not do with "Fast and Furious".

Ted Simons: It's good to have you here. Thank you so much for joining us.

Jose de Jesus Rivera: Thank you.

Jose de Jesus Rivera:Former U.S. Attorney;

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