A former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigator based in Michigan pleaded guilty in late April to leaking hundreds of internal agency records to a person connected to gun rights advocacy groups, court records show. The groups then published information from the leaked records online, sometimes as soon as a day after they were obtained.

The investigator was identified as Christodoulos Santafianos, an industry operations investigator responsible for inspecting federal firearms licensees in the Michigan area. In his plea agreement, which was first reported by WJMN, Santafianos admitted to releasing sensitive records and communications outlining the agency’s plans to inspect federal firearm licensees, as well as internal directives pertaining to ghost guns and machine guns. The agreement says that the leaks occurred between 2019 and Santafianos’s guilty plea in April of this year.

He was charged with a misdemeanor and faces up to a year in prison and $100,000 in fines. 

Though Santafianos’s plea agreement does not say which gun groups obtained the leaked records — the document identifies his contact only by the initials “R.O.” — The Trace identified at least 12 articles published between May 2021 and February 2023 that detail purported ATF leaks. In several articles, the documents are identified as having been obtained by Gun Owners of America, a fringe gun rights group. 

The ATF referred a request for comment to the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan, which is prosecuting Santafianos’s case.

“[Santafianos’s] actions interfered with necessary spontaneous investigations of firearms licensees designed to determine compliance with federal laws,” a spokesperson for the office wrote in an email. “The sharing of information placed law enforcement officers at increased risk of harm and jeopardized the abilities of ATF to carry out its mission of protecting the public.”

It is unclear whether any of the leaked documents interfered with agency operations, but at least one document identified in the plea agreement may have given advance notice to firearm manufacturers and distributors that they would soon be inspected. The document, called a 30-day detail, outlined New England-based firearm manufacturers and distributors ATF investigators sought to inspect in the coming months.

Santafianos’s plea agreement says that he leaked the record on July 9, 2021. Three days later, the online site AmmoLand published a story, which offered details about the ATF’s plan to “carry out several large-scale inspections of gun manufactures (sic) and sub-contractors in the New England area.” The story says that the ATF was looking for volunteer inspectors to serve on a temporary detail in the agency’s Boston field office to help conduct the inspections.

Joshua Scharff, general counsel and director of programs for the gun violence prevention group, Brady, said the leak points to a pattern of “coziness” that exists between some ATF inspectors and the gun industry. “Inspections are ATF’s tool to ensure that FFLs (federal firearms licensees) are following the law,” he said, “and it’s disheartening to see any rogue elements within the agency give the gun industry the ability to evade the law.”

Santafianos also admitted to sharing records regarding Polymer80 buy-build-shoot kits — parts kits that enable buyers to build ghost guns with limited handiwork — and forced reset triggers, which convert semiautomatic guns to near fully automatic fire. The ATF considers forced reset triggers machine guns under federal law. The leaked records included directives for investigators on how to handle these two products if found at federal firearms licensees, as well as a technical bulletin about forced reset triggers containing the names of two companies that manufacture the devices, the plea agreement stated. 

Between 2021 and 2022, AmmoLand published at least two stories about the ATF’s approach to policing these items that purportedly originated from leaks. One, about forced reset triggers, mentioned the names of two parts manufacturers. 

Other stories published by AmmoLand about leaked ATF documents detail mostly routine information — a resignation letter from a disgruntled conservative agent, a copy of the agency’s manual for gun dealer inspectors — as well as memoranda discussing forward-looking enforcement plans, including an initiative to investigate COVID relief fraud. At least twice, it appears the records the publication obtained provided the first signal of developments at the agency, such as the promotion of an agency attorney to the role of Chief Counsel. Still, it is unclear from Santafianos’s plea agreement whether the records he leaked provided the basis for any of these stories. 

Many of the leaks came during a turbulent period for the ATF, while the agency simultaneously struggled to confirm a new director and to contain the fallout from a historic surge in gun sales that put a strain on its ability to inspect gun stores and crack down on trafficking. The leak of the New England inspection plan occurred just weeks after President Biden urged the ATF to institute a new zero-tolerance policy to revoke the licenses of gun dealers found to have willfully violated federal law, which followed an investigation from The Trace and USA TODAY about the agency’s conciliatory and toothless approach to inspections. 

The investigation, which involved a review of nearly 2,000 gun dealer inspections conducted between 2015 and 2017, found that the agency had let dozens of lawbreaking gun stores off the hook for violations as serious as falsifying records and selling guns without background checks; it downgraded the penalties of more than half of the dealers that inspectors had recommended for revocation. 

Brian Luettke, a retired supervisory special agent with the ATF who once worked in the same office as Santafianos, said the news of his arrest was surprising. “I’m disappointed he would share documents and information like he did,” Luettke told The Trace. “But I’m confident to say if anyone in the [Grand Rapids] office knew what he was doing they would have reported him.”

As part of the agreement, Santafianos resigned from his position with the ATF, and consented never to apply for another position with the ATF or the Department of Justice.