Federal agents raided Blackwater Worldwide this week as part of an investigation into whether the private security company sidestepped federal laws prohibiting the private purchase of automatic assault rifles, the company said Thursday.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives searched Blackwater's armory at its corporate headquarters in Moyock on Tuesday as part of the investigation. Court documents show that agents seized 22 guns as evidence from a vault dedicated to county authorities.
The company signed agreements in 2005 in which Blackwater financed the purchase of 34 automatic weapons for the Camden County Sheriff's Office. Sheriff Tony Perry became the official owner of the weapons, but Blackwater was allowed to keep most of the guns at its armory.
Federal laws prohibit private parties from buying automatic weapons, but allows law enforcement agencies to have them.
One of the 2005 agreements says the weapons will be kept under "lock and key" and doesn't describe whether Blackwater would use the guns.
"We believe all aspects of our contracts with the sheriff's office are lawful and proper," Tyrrell said, adding that the ATF has known about the arrangement for a long time.
Tyrrell also said federal authorities have known about the weapons for years and that investigators got a complete look at the company's cache in 2005 after two employees were fired.
Kenneth Wayne Cashwell and William Ellsworth "Max" Grumiaux were sentenced this year on gunrunning charges, but they were spared prison time after federal prosecutors asked a judge to approve a lighter sentence because of their ongoing cooperation in a weapons investigation.
Blackwater said it fired the men after finding they had been stealing from the company. Cashwell operated Blackwater's armory in 2005, Tyrrell said.
"When these guys were fired, we invited (ATF) in to do a full search of everything we possessed," Tyrrell said. "They did a full audit, and those weapons were there at that time."
She said it is not unusual for Blackwater to store automatic weapons because the company is licensed to sell, provide training on, or even manufacture firearms.
Both ATF and U.S. Attorney George Holding declined to comment.
The 2005 agreements give the sheriff's office unlimited access to the weapons, including 17 Romanian AK-47s and 17 Bushmasters. But Perry has said his department has only used the AK-47s in shooting practice at Blackwater and that none of his 19 deputies are qualified to use them.
The 34 weapons are registered in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record to the Camden County sheriff. The AK-47s and five of the Bushmasters were stored and used at Blackwater while the remainder of the weapons were assigned to local deputies, Perry had said. Those numbers match with the guns listed on the search warrant receipt filed Wednesday.
The sheriff did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.
Blackwater is the largest private security firm in Iraq, and it has been under scrutiny as a federal grand jury in Washington investigates the company's involvement in the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians. The firm is also under investigation for possible weapons smuggling allegations - violations the firm strongly denies.
Associated Press Writer Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report from Washington.
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