June 30, 2009
Tony West, AAG for the Civil Division, DOJ
Remarks at the CPSC Fireworks Safety Press Conference
Good morning. Thank you Chairman Tennanbaum for inviting me to discuss this timely subject. The Fourth of July holiday is one of my favorite holidays: a time for family, friends, BBQs in the park, and the dazzling display of fireworks shows - bursts of color, light and sound that illuminate the night sky.
Yet, as we look forward to this weekend's festivities, it is important to remind ourselves that while fireworks, when used legally and appropriately, can add to the celebration, illegal fireworks can too often maim bodies; shatter lives, often much too young; and even kill. These are dangerous, highly unstable explosives and they can have a devastating effect.
Eleven years ago, a 17-year-old boy from Wisconsin placed a quarterstick — an illegal explosive, hundreds of times more powerful than a legal consumer firework — in a mailbox. It unexpectedly exploded and it tragically killed him. I bring up this 1998 incident because it was the impetus for the Justice Department, the CPSC and ATF to increase our efforts to work cooperatively to stop the illegal manufacture and sale of dangerous fireworks to consumers. And as a result of that 17-year old's death, CPSC and ATF investigators undertook an extensive investigation that resulted in the Justice Department prosecuting and obtaining prison sentences against several major dealers and suppliers of illegal fireworks in three states: Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.
When I was a federal prosecutor in California, I had the opportunity to see first-hand the great efforts of our ATF officers as they worked every day to protect the public from crime, violence and other threats to public safety.
And now, as the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division, I have the honor of working with Chairman Tennanbaum and our partners at the CPSC whose single-minded focus on consumer protection helps keep us all safe. And the cooperation between these two great agencies-the ATF and the CPSC-has made our communities safer.
But there is still more work to do.
In 2007 alone, hospital emergency rooms treated nearly 10,000 fireworks-related injuries. So, the Justice Department takes very seriously the dangers that illegal fireworks and diverted professional fireworks pose to the public.
Now we know there are responsible manufacturers and conscientious pyrotechnic companies that also want to see the sale of illegal fireworks curtailed because that illegal market makes life difficult for them when they're trying to do the right thing. And we in law enforcement want to work with them. But, we also know many out there who aren't as conscientious, and who will break the law to make a buck. Our message to those folks is: we will use our law enforcement tools to stop you when we can and punish you when you put the public's safety at risk.
Over the past few years, our criminal and civil enforcement efforts have resulted in the destruction of more than 75 tons of fireworks destined for the consumer market in violation of federal law. Thus far, the Justice Department has secured more than 55 convictions and injunctions against the manufacturers and distributors of the illegal fireworks, sent numerous individuals to federal prison, collected over $1.5M in fines and forfeitures, and shut down illegal businesses that were profiting by putting Americans in harm's way. Right now, cases are being built against other individuals and entities throughout the country.
A good example of our resolve came just two weeks ago, when we completed an important prosecution which was the result of this partnership between the CPSC and the ATF.
John Cea is a retired NYPD officer, but that did not deter him from running an illegal fireworks enterprise with his son on Long Island, New York. Working with local law enforcement, we discovered that the Ceas were involved in a large-scale operation to divert thousands of pounds of professional-grade display fireworks - which are explosives under federal law - to people without the required ATF licenses. Last December, the Ceas pled guilty to Conspiring to Engage in the Business of Dealing in Explosive Materials Without a License. And two weeks ago, John Cea was sentenced to two years in prison and a $6,000 fine and son Vincent received a three-year prison sentence and a $3,000 fine. The Court also entered forfeiture orders totalling $160,000 against the Ceas.
We also know that as critical as it is for us to punish those who break the law, it is equally important to use civil enforcement tools, like civil injunctions and court orders, to prevent the sale, use and manufacture of illegal fireworks in the first place.
So when we learned that Gary Purrington in Pocatello, Idaho, was using his business to sell kits to make M-80s, we brought a civil injunction action against him. Purrington had already sold the chemicals and components necessary to make these illegal explosives to more than 100 customers and violated the Department of Transportation's hazardous materials shipping regulations. The Justice Department obtained a court order that permanently enjoins Purrington and his company from selling kits to make those illegal fireworks. It also severely restricts their ability to sell and ship certain components that could be used to make illegal fireworks.
While this issue tends to come to light around the July 4th holiday, I wanted to come here today to let you know that we, along with ATF and CPSC, are working year-round to take strong legal action against violators of the federal fireworks laws. We want Americans to celebrate safely this July 4th, and we hope and believe that our efforts make everyone safer.
Madam Chairman, again thank you for inviting me to participate in this event today and thank you for all of the work the CPSC does to keep consumers safe.