U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is rebuking acting Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Director Kenneth Melson for failing to respond to a subpoena asking for documents related to the Project Gunrunner investigation.

In a letter to the ATF director, Issa says, “Absent a valid assertion of executive privilege over the materials sought, I expect you to produce the things identified in the March 31, 2011, subpoena’s schedule by the return date.”

Issa noted that the April 13 deadline for the subpoena issued the month before has passed without any cooperation from the ATF.

Issa today was critical of what he says is ATF “stonewalling.”

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“Efforts by the Department of Justice and ATF to stonewall the committee in its investigation by erroneously, but matter-of-factly, citing an internal department policy as a preventative measure for denying access to documents have only enhanced suspicions that such officials have played a role in reckless decisions that have put lives at risk,” Issa said in prepared statement.

Melson has stated that the reason for his refusal to turn over the documents is because of ongoing criminal investigations.

Issa counters that his committee members will still continue their investigation.

“The committee continues to pursue this matter vigorously, in part, because concerned individuals have indicated they do not have confidence in the department’s ability to review the actions of its own top officials,” Issa said.

Issa added that even if department policy legally allows documents to be withheld, Melson should provide a list of documents that fall under that provision.

“Even if a legal basis did exist for withholding documents, the first step in evaluating this argument and the basis for a meaningful conversation between the committee and the Department of Justice would be the production of a log of documents responsive to the subpoena with a specific explanation as to why you cannot produce each document,” Issa wrote.

Issa added that the director’s refusal to turn over documents relating to a criminal investigation is still not valid because such documents have been provided to Congress in the past.

“There are several prominent examples of Congress investigating the conduct of the Department of Justice while the department proceeded simultaneously with criminal or civil probes,” Issa wrote.

Issa listed the 1922 Teapot Dome inquiry, the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant probe and the 2004 investigation of the Boston FBI regional office permitting two dozen murders while the murder suspects served as FBI informants.

Committee spokeswoman Becca Watkins says it’s possible the chairman could move to hold Melson in contempt of Congress if the acting director continues to withhold the documents.

“I think it’s a possibility. I think we are taking these things one step at a time. The first step is today’s letter. From there we’ll see what transpires,” Watkins said.

Mexican Sen. Luis Alberto Villarreal has called for hearings on Project Gunrunner because more than 150 Mexican citizens have been killed with guns that allegedly entered Mexico through the program.

WND reported in March that Chamber of Deputies Justice Committee Chairman Humberto Benitez Trevino also is also demanding an investigation into the ATF operation.

The program run by the ATF reportedly allowed guns purchased in the United States to be smuggled into Mexico for the purpose of tracking them to high-ranking members of Mexico’s drug cartels.

Issa earlier confirmed he has assigned four investigators to look into the escapade, in which the government allegedly allowed and encouraged gun shops to sell guns to questionable customers so the weapons could be tracked into Mexico.

WND reported recently that at least one of the gun shops that cooperated with the ATF operation became a target for a federal investigation for “illegal gun sales.”

That shop was Houston-based Carter’s Country, whose managers were notified by Houston’s U.S. attorney that they were the subjects of an investigation.

Houston defense attorney Dick DeGuerin said that it took several court appearances and a mediation session to clear Carter’s Country of any charges of wrongdoing.

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