A rowdy camp-out in the hills of eastern Tennessee became the latest weapon in the fight to undermine the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on Friday as the Senate Judiciary Committee held its hearing on assertions of racist incidents at events organized by a retired officer of the firearms agency.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is chairman of the committee, said he was “deeply troubled” by press accounts that there had been racist signs and skits at the “Good Ol’ Boys Roundup” over the last 15 years.
He also said the committee had received three affidavits about drug use and rape at some of the gatherings. But he added that he could not make public the names of the people who provided the affidavits and that the committee had been unable to verify them.
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., said the contentions were so serious that they made him “wonder if the ATF has outlived its usefulness.”
The firearms agency has been under attack by conservatives, and particularly by the National Rifle Association, because of its role in regulating the manufacture and sale of guns and its participation in the siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, in 1993, which ended in a fire that killed about 80 members of the sect on April 19, 1993.
The only two witnesses Friday who attended any of the camp-outs, which were held near the Ocoee River on the edge of the Cherokee National Forest, said they had not seen any of the racist incidents first reported by an Alabama paramilitary group, the Gadsden Minutemen.
The group, whose report was picked up by The Washington Times and furnished the basis of Friday’s hearing, contended that there were “nigger-hunting licenses” for sale at the camp-out.
“I never saw any racist signs or symbols,” said Cordell Malone Jr., a special agent in the firearms bureau’s Chattanooga, Tenn., office, who is black. “I never felt I was not welcomed or unwanted.”
Malone said he had been invited by his best friend, John Scott, another special agent in the Chattanooga office, who is white.
Scott said the three-day camp-outs, attended by more than 300 law-enforcement officers from around the country, had their lewd, raunchy moments, with some people drinking too much from a beer truck and couples walking around in various stages of undress.
Scott also testified that on one night four men hanging around the beer truck had berated him for the presence of two blacks. He told the Senate panel that the men told him, “It looks the like the ATF has managed to screw up something else, the roundup.” Scott said he told the men, “If you have a problem with blacks being here, you’ll be asked to leave.”
Scott then said that he later learned from the organizer of the camp-out, Gene Rightmyer, that the four men, police officers from Florida and Alabama, had been ordered to leave the camp-out and that their attendance fees were refunded. Scott said Rightmyer had apologized to him and Malone for the men’s remarks.
The testimony by Scott and Malone appeared to catch Hatch by surprise. Press accounts and other witnesses Friday have pictured Rightmyer, who started the campouts in 1980, as an outspoken racist.
Hatch said Rightmyer had refused to come to Washington for the hearing. And Valerie Lau, the inspector general of the Treasury Department, who is also investigating the participation of ATF agents in the camp-outs, said Rightmyer had deleted the names of all the participants from his home computer just before she issued him a subpoena last week.
Another witness before the Senate committee, Curtis Cooper, a retired firearms bureau official who is black, said that Rightmyer had known “racist tendencies.” When Rightmyer learned that Cooper would be his supervisor, Cooper said, he remarked, “It would be a cold day in hell before he worked for a nigger.”
Several officials testified that the number of federal law-enforcement officers who took part in the campouts was small. John W. Magaw, director of the ATF, said that at most only a dozen agents had participated each year. Louis J. Freeh, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said only one of his agents had been there this year.