WASHINGTON — Five months after President Obama nominated him the full-time head of the Bureau of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard from Minnesota U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones on Tuesday morning — and his allies and enemies were ready for him.
Even as Obama was nominating Jones to the post, his path to confirmation was a difficult one — the Senate has not confirmed a full-time ATF head since it got that power in 2006. And Senate Republicans long have been leery of confirming a full-time head under Obama as they await more information from the administration on ATF’s botched gun-running operation, Fast and Furious.
A series of complaints against Jones himself have hampered his nomination process, to the point where an April hearing on his nomination was delayed until Tuesday.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a longtime supporter of Jones’ nomination, spoke highly of his professional background and their work together going back to her days as Hennepin County attorney.
She highlighted his resume as well: University of Minnesota Law School alumnus, former officer in the U.S. Marines, twice Minnesota U.S. district attorney and now, interim head of ATF, a position he’s held since 2011.
At the beginning of the hearing, Klobuchar also offered a prebuttal to potential Republican concerns with Jones’ tenure at ATF, noting he took over after Fast and Furious and saying he’s worked to clean up ATF afterward. She said he’s shown his ability to undertake complex federal cases while in Minnesota.
“He is well-qualified and has a range of experiences and accomplishments that leave him more than ready to lead the ATF on a full-time basis,” she said. “Not on a temporary basis, not on an interim basis. He is a talented, dedicated and hard-working public servant who has served his country in both the military and in civilian agencies.”
Grassley leads GOP opposition
But Republicans, led by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, had a longer list of Jones complaints than just Fast and Furious. Primarily, Grassley said it would be inappropriate to consider Jones’ nomination during an internal investigation into his conduct as U.S. attorney in Minnesota.
The Justice Department is considering whether Jones retaliated against a whistleblower from within the department, as well as allegations of “gross mismanagement and abuses of authority” in his office, according to an April 12 letter sent from the Office of Special Council to the Judiciary Committee. The investigation came to light in April, which delayed committee consideration of Jones’s nomination.
Grassley further highlighted complaints from former Minnesota FBI agent Donald Oswald about Jones’s effectiveness and another agent’s “detailed account of the mismanagement, abuse of authority, and other problems within the office.”
Grassley said he wants to know Jones’ role in an alleged legal quid pro quo between the city of St. Paul and the Department of Justice, an agreement that emerged while Jones was U.S. attorney. And, yes, finally, he said he was looking to learn about Jones’ involvement in Fast and Furious (Tuesday’s hearing was delayed for a week while Grassley waited for a response from the White House to questions about the operation).
“Given the open complaint and all of the other concerns I have addressed, why are we even here today?” Grassley said. “I don’t think anyone can provide a good answer to that question. Proceeding today is premature.”
Under questioning, Jones said he couldn’t comment on the Justice Department investigation because the nature of the complaint wasn’t public. He said he hasn’t been interviewed in the probe, and in fact, “I learned more from your statement today than I knew before I came here this morning about the nature and substance of the complaint.”
As to allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers, “I have not taken adverse actions against anyone that I’ve worked with. I was quite surprised by the nature of the allegations, whether it was at ATF or the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” he said. “In both situations, I came into a less than perfect environment, and I’ve quite frankly been an agent of change, and change is hard sometimes for people to deal with.”
Jones said he wasn’t aware of Oswald’s complaints and batted back against his charges of nepotism, although he said he wasn’t going to go into detail on his hiring and firing practices like those Oswald alleged.
That hindered Jones’ responses to questions from Republican Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake on Fast and Furious.
Flake wanted to know details about the punishments leveled against ATF executives involved in the mission. Jones said none of those involved are still on staff — from ATF’s acting director to the then-head of the Phoenix office. Some retired, some resigned, and others left the agency altogether, Jones said. Others were disciplined, he said, but he wasn’t able to go into detail.
“Its important for us to have that information and for what can be shared to be shared” Flake said. “There’s a lot of mistrust, and people don’t think that anybody was held to account, at any time, and it’s difficult for any of us to say with any certainty that they were without this information.”
Democrats: Confirm a nominee
Democrats and gun violence prevention groups have long called for the Senate to confirm a full-time ATF head. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York compared it to what would happen if the FBI went without a director.
“Don’t you think that could be used by terrorists to say the United States is weak on terror, is not doing all it could on terror?” he said. “I would hope that would change.”
Jones supporters say it should be him. Klobuchar introduced a long list of endorsers, from law enforcement and national attorney associations to Republican-appointed U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger. The White House hit Republicans for blocking the nominees on Monday (though Grassley noted it took Obama two years to appoint an ATF head) and said Jones should be the man to take over full-time.
“Todd Jones is a highly qualified nominee who has decades of experience in law enforcement and a track record of effective leadership as acting ATF Director,” spokesman Jay Carney said at the beginning of his press briefing. “The President called on Congress to finally put a confirmed director at the helm of this vital agency, and we hope that they will act swiftly to do so.”
But Grassley gave no indication that he was willing to drop his previous concerns about Jones’ nomination. Before the hearing concluded, he gave him a list of new questions to respond to later, including those related to post-Fast and Furious discipline.
But Klobuchar said the time has come to approve a full-time ATF head.
“No matter what the title of the agency is, no matter if people have political disagreements with work that’s being done,” she said, “I think the fact that we have an agency in the United States government that we currently do not have a permanent chair of, that we have left dormant for seven years … I think it’s just wrong.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry