WASHINGTON – Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee gave President Obama’s choice to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives a cool reception on Tuesday, grilling B. Todd Jones on issues ranging from claims of office mismanagement and vindictiveness to the administration’s views on gun prosecutions.
Led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the panel’s ranking member, GOP lawmakers complained that Jones’ confirmation hearing should have been postponed until an Office of Special Counsel probe into his tenure as the U.S. attorney for Minnesota is completed.
Instead, Grassley said, “the majority is intent on jamming this nomination through the committee no matter what,” and Republicans exhibited no indication that they are willing to go along.
“It’s no secret that there have been several controversial events that Mr. Jones has been involved in to one degree or the other,” Grassley said.
Jones is the second candidate nominated by the White House to head the ATF, one of the federal government’s leading law enforcement agencies. The first, Andrew Traver, head of the Denver division, was withdrawn in the face of opposition from Republicans who threatened to filibuster the move.
Obama and his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, have experienced problems filling the position since the Senate was given the authority to confirm the president’s nominee in 2006. Since then no one has gained approval and the bureau has been led by four people – including Jones – on an interim basis.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who chaired the hearing in the absence of Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), asserted that the Senate’s inability to confirm a permanent director is hindering the agency.
“It seems that some members of the Senate don’t want the ATF to have the benefit of a confirmed director,” Klobuchar said. “So for all the concerns raised about the ATF – some of them very legitimate – confirming a full-time permanent director should be a firm step in making sure the ATF is doing its job and doing it well.”
Jones, Klobuchar said, 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 — 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.”
On April 12 the Senate Judiciary Committee was informed that the Office of Special Counsel had launched an investigation into claims that Jones had retaliated against one of his assistants during his tenure as U.S. attorney in Minnesota, suspending the subordinate for five days and transferring him to other duties after concerns were voiced about gross mismanagement.
That claim remains open, although both sides have agreed to mediation over the issue.
Another complaint forwarded to the Office of Special Counsel — this one from an anonymous source claiming to be “Employees of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Minnesota” – asserted that Jones imposed a “climate of fear” and practiced “an Orwellian style of management that continues to polarize the office.” OSC did not institute a substantive probe into the letter since insufficient information was made available.
Grassley insisted there are “serious charges” and “numerous unresolved issues regarding Mr. Jones” that warrant the committee’s attention.
Under questioning from Grassley, Jones said he was surprised by the allegations and that he always followed “all the laws and regulations.”
“I have not taken adverse actions against anyone I have worked with,” he said.
“I came into a less than perfect environment and quite frankly have been an agent of change and change is hard sometimes for individuals to deal with and I have always had a focus on doing the right things for the right reasons and sometimes folks are not happy about the direction overall,” he said.
On another sensitive issue, Jones reminded lawmakers that he assumed his position at the ATF after Fast and Furious. Klobuchar, in fact, noted that he was brought in to “get the agency back on its feet.”
Fast and Furious was a widely criticized sting operation implemented by ATF from 2006 to 2011, primarily in Arizona, where licensed firearms dealers were allowed to sell weapons to illegal straw buyers, hoping the weapons could be traced to Mexican drug cartel leaders. The guns have been found at numerous crime scenes and one of the weapons was used in the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
Jones said he found an agency “very much in distress” when he took the interim directorship at ATF. One of the first things he did was determine who served in a leadership capacity.
“None of the individuals who are identified in leadership positions during the Fast and Furious incident are currently in place,” he said. “We have, as I mentioned, 22 new agents in charge. We knew there was a failure in leadership and oversight. One of the first things we did was issue and clarify our firearms transfer policy with underpinnings being the public safety always trumped the investigative needs.”
That wasn’t good enough for Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who pushed to know if anyone was actually punished for the debacle, noting that in Arizona “there’s a lot of mistrust and people don’t think that anyone is held to account at any time.”
Jones said individuals were fired and dismissed but he refused to go into detail.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) questioned Jones about the Justice Department’s failure to prosecute cases involving individuals who are prohibited from purchasing guns who nonetheless get them by providing false information in background checks.
While characterizing putting an end to gun violence “a major priority,” Jones acknowledged that such cases are rarely prosecuted, citing limited resources.
Cruz pressed Jones further, asking if other cases involving a “major priority” don’t get prosecuted.
“With all due respect, senator, just so the record is clear, I said the priority is protecting the American public from violent crime including from violent gun crime,” Jones said. “I just want to make sure what they testimony is not twisted into something it is not.”
A vote on the nomination has not been set. Jones will continue to pull as acting ATF director while retaining his official duties in Minnesota.