The ATF is undergoing a major shakeup.
Acting Director Marvin Richardson is being demoted, and US Attorney Gary Restaino will take over his position, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the move. The reshuffling was announced by Richardson on a conference call Monday, which left many ATF officials surprised and dismayed. The ATF is expected to announce the move in the coming days.
“The news that he was being replaced came as a shock to most of us within the agency,” one ATF official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, told The Reload.
Richardson is an African-American career ATF official who has spent more than 30 years with the agency. His demotion means he has not only been passed over twice for nomination to become the permanent director but is now being shuffled out of the acting director position mere months before a permanent director may be confirmed. The move follows a recent New York Times article featuring complaints from gun-control activists which labeled Richardson “an industry-friendly subordinate pumping the brakes” on President Biden’s aggressive gun-control initiatives. It risks creating a backlash that could jeopardize the President’s second attempt to install a permanent head for the agency.
Refusing to consider an accomplished Black agent like Richardson for the permanent position may lead to further controversy around Biden’s nomination of Steve Dettelbach.
Dettelbach was going to be recommended for renomination as US Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio by Senator Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) last year but was pulled after civil rights activists complained no consideration was given to qualified Black candidates. Samaria Rice, whose son Tamir was killed by Cleveland Police in 2014 when they mistook his toy gun for a real one, was among those who spoke out against Dettelbach’s renomination. At the time, Rice told Cleveland.com, “the community deserves a fair process,” not a “white, political insider” pick.
The administration’s treatment of Richardson, who worked his way up from field agent to the directorship, may inspire similar critiques.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment on the situation. The ATF referred questions to the Department of Justice which did not respond.
At least some ATF sources perceive Richardson’s demotion as a politically-motivated punishment. A second ATF source with dozens of years of experience confirmed Richardson is being replaced by Restaino. They said the demotion was likely a result of perceptions inside the administration that Richardson is too friendly towards the gun industry.
“This administration has some very strong opinions on guns,” the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Reload. “They may have some distaste with that. So, bringing in [Restaino] kind of negates that.”
A third source from inside the firearms industry, who asked not to be identified because the move is not yet public, confirmed Richardson is being moved out of the acting director position in favor of Restaino.
The second ATF source said Richardson’s efforts to maintain a working relationship with the industry did not soften the agency’s enforcement of gun regulations and are integral to making cases.
“A lot of the tips that we would get on illegal firearms activity from straw purchasers to traffickers came from dealers,” they said. “The reality is just a very, very small percentage of gun dealers are bad. So, those partnerships are important, and Marvin really did a great job at nurturing those relationships.”
But the source said gun-control activists and the Biden Administration have increasingly viewed maintaining a close working relationship with the industry as detrimental to the agency’s mission.
“The fact that he has those relationships may not have sat well with the current administration,’ they said. “And I’m sure that that might’ve helped them push him out.”
The first ATF official described Richardson as a “salt of the earth kind of guy” who didn’t play favorites with the industry or the gun-control groups. The source said his unceremonious demotion has been met with disappointment by many of the staff who’ve been informed of the decision.
“Acting Director Richardson is well respected and liked within the agency,” the agent said. “He is known as a selfless and apolitical leader.”
The second ATF source said rank-and-file agents admire Richardson. However, praise for him is not universal. The source described Richardson as something of a “yes man” for the Department of Justice who could be too “touchy-feely” for the head of a law enforcement agency.
“As a person, he was very well-liked,” they said. “Marvin is a nice guy, but he’s not a strong leader.”
Still, the second ATF source was concerned with the sudden reshuffling of ATF leadership. They said Acting Deputy Director Thomas Chittum is also leaving in the next few weeks and Acting Assistant Director George Lauder is considered moving on as well. The source said they are glad Richardson is slated to stay on as Deputy Director in the short term since that will help create a smoother transition to the new leadership team.
“Candidly, it brings me more comfort than if he was forced out immediately,” they said. “Because there will be a bit of a leadership vacuum.”
Restaino has spent his career as a prosecutor. He spent 18 years as an Assistant US Attorney before being nominated as the US Attorney for the District of Arizona. He was confirmed by the Senate and assumed office last November.