But the Senate has failed to approve any previous nominees over objections by the gun lobby.
B. Todd Jones, the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, was nominated by the president Wednesday for permanent director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
The former U.S. Marine may be heading into a firefight.
No one has been confirmed as director of the $1.12 billion agency since its law enforcement functions were split off from the U.S. Treasury Department in 2006 and the position was made subject to Senate approval. The gun lobby has objected to every nominee, including the choice of former President George W. Bush.
The National Rifle Association already is opposing gun-control measures proposed by the Obama administration in the wake of the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The organization did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on Jones' nomination.
Jones could not be reached for comment. But federal spokesmen said that by convention, nominees don't grant interviews pending Senate action.
Jones, 55, of St. Paul, has been acting director of ATF since August 2011, when he was tapped to lead the agency's recovery from the controversial "Fast and Furious" gun-tracking case in Arizona, which led to the death of a border patrol agent. The episode became a rallying point of Republican criticism of the Obama administration and culminated in a House contempt vote against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
In a statement to the Star Tribune earlier this year, Jones said that "certain tactics utilized in Operation Fast and Furious were unacceptable and must never recur."
A controversy over video
Jones replaced two-thirds of the ATF's top supervisors in Washington and launched initiatives to restore morale of the agency's 5,000 employees. He ran into controversy in July for remarks he made in an internal video, that anyone who doesn't abide by the rules and respect the chain of command will face "consequences." Some agents interpreted that as a threat to potential whistleblowers, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., expressed concerns that his remarks would keep employees from reporting legitimate problems.
Jones quickly issued a clarification, saying he was not attempting to discourage disclosures under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act.
Grassley said Jones would get a fair hearing, but that his "ties to the Fast and Furious scandal raise serious questions." He also raised concerns over a "now infamous quid pro quo arrangement where the Justice Department bartered away valid False Claims Act cases in Minnesota."
Grassley referenced an allegation that the Justice Department agreed to drop two cases against St. Paul in exchange for the city dropping its pending appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that pitted the city against a group of landlords.
Grassley and Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, also have questioned Jones about the ATF's former deputy assistant director for field operations, who they say was allowed to remain on the payroll for a period after he'd obtained a full-time job in the private sector. Although the legality of the arrangement was unclear, they wrote in a letter to Jones, "the fact that the ATF management chose to authorize it is not."
Local staff applauds Jones
Jones' ATF nomination came as no surprise to his staff.
"We all are very happy for him," said Jeanne Cooney, spokeswoman for the office. "He's an extremely dedicated public servant and will serve the administration well if and when the Senate confirms him. We will certainly miss him."
Jones got his juris doctorate from the University of Minnesota in 1983, then went on active duty in the Marine Corps, where he served as a trial defense lawyer and a prosecutor. He returned to Minnesota in 1989 and launched a civil litigation practice. He joined the U.S. Attorney's office under Thomas Heffelfinger in the 1990s and was appointed U.S. Attorney in 1998 by then-President Bill Clinton. He returned to the private sector in 2001 and became a partner in the Twin Cities law firms of Greene Espel and later, Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi.
"He'd be a good director [of ATF]," Heffelfinger said. "I believe that."
Jones will have both of Minnesota's DFL senators in his corner when he comes up for confirmation.
Sen. Al Franken said in a statement that he was "very pleased" by the nomination.
"Todd is a real leader, and he has an impressive record of public service," Franken said. "Todd also is a proud product of Minnesota schools, having graduated from Macalester College and the University of Minnesota Law School. ... I look forward to working with him in his new role."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in a statement that the "ATF needs a permanent leader and Todd Jones is an excellent choice." She said he has brought incredible focus and integrity to each leadership role he has held.
Klobuchar nominated Jones as U.S. Attorney for Minnesota after a tumultuous staff revolt over the management style of a predecessor, Rachel Paulose.
Since he's been serving as acting head of ATF, however, a number of law enforcement sources have complained that his staff has backed away from certain types of cases -- especially drugs.
Jones, in a recent interview with the Star Tribune, said the office had to change its focus to deal with sophisticated white-collar crime cases and made a conscious decision to take fewer "street crimes" than in the past.
If Jones is confirmed by the Senate, Holder would appoint an interim U.S. Attorney in Minnesota who could serve in that role for 120 days. Typically, the senior U.S. Senator from the same party as the president -- in this case, Klobuchar --would recommend one or more candidates. The president would then seek the Senate's confirmation. If the process exceeds 120 days, the district court may name an acting U.S. Attorney until the Senate confirms a permanent one.
No one would speculate Wednesday about who the leading candidates might be.
Star Tribune reporters Kevin Diaz and Corey Mitchell contribued information to this report from Washington, D.C. Dan Browning • 612-673-4493