Last month, in a ceremony presided over by Vice President Joe Biden, B. Todd Jones became the first permanent director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in six years.
It was an occasion some thought might never happen. Under withering attack during the nomination fight, Jones considered throwing in the towel.
The ATF, of which he was acting director, was caught in political crossfire over gun control. And there were personal attacks on Jones, both in his role at ATF and as U.S. attorney for Minnesota.
“I love public service, and to have to run that gantlet and have shots taken at your professional reputation without an ability to push back because you have to restrain yourself, it’s difficult,” Jones said recently in his first interview since he was nominated by President Obama on Feb. 1 to head the ATF.
“And there were junctures where I was like, ‘OK, why am I doing this again?’ ”
Jones, 56, and his wife, Margaret, talked about what he should do, “a cost-benefit analysis,” as he put it.
In the end, he hearkened back to his time in the Marine Corps and decided to soldier on. “I’m stubborn,” he said. “Marines do not quit.”
After heavy-duty Democratic arm-twisting, the Senate narrowly invoked cloture to prevent a GOP filibuster. Jones was confirmed by a 53-42 vote on July 31.
Caught in the crossfire
Despite strong support from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jones’ confirmation appeared to be on life support last winter.
He was blasted by a former special agent in charge of the Minneapolis FBI office who said he had no confidence in Jones’ leadership, by several members of his own staff in the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota, and by some in the local law enforcement community. An assistant U.S. attorney in Jones’ office filed a whistleblower complaint about how he’d been treated.
And he underwent unrelenting criticism from Iowa’s Charles Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I do not believe we should simply rubber-stamp this nomination, and sweep the alarming allegations under the rug,” Grassley wrote three weeks before the Senate confirmed Jones’ appointment.
Jones had been brought in as acting ATF director in 2011 on the heels of the “Fast and Furious” operation, a botched sting that allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican traffickers, including one used to kill a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Jones replaced many top personnel, but Republicans weren’t satisfied.
Prof. Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond, an expert on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it was apparent Jones’ confirmation was far from a sure thing.
“It wasn’t crystal clear there was going to be a floor vote in the Senate,” Tobias said, adding, “and I’m not sure it had a lot to do with the nominee.” GOP antagonism toward the agency and the debate over gun control may have been driving factors, he said.
Twice before, the Senate had easily confirmed Jones to be a U.S. attorney in Minnesota, first in 1998 under President Clinton and again in 2009 after President Obama was elected.
This time, the circumstances were different.
A ‘very difficult’ process
Two factors influenced Jones’ decision to let the confirmation process play out.
“One was, I do love public service. It’s a life of purpose. It’s one where you get to do good things that really help people. It’s why I went to law school and why I was in the service, so I could carry that on.
“The other is, at ATF, in two years as acting director, it really educated me about what a great organization it is and how unfair it has been treated for the six years that they did not have a confirmed director. … It is such a special organization, with great people that do some hard work in areas that aren’t necessarily fun. It’s guns. It’s the gun control.”
The battle came to a head at a Senate judiciary hearing in June, where he was grilled for 2½ hours in what he said felt like a trial.
Asked about Grassley, who led the fight to prevent him from becoming director, Jones said, “Washington is a tough place right now. And the hyper-partisanship is going to make it increasingly difficult for good people to want to step up for public service if people have to go through what I went through.
“And that’s really a shame. That’s not a statement about Senator Grassley or anybody else. It’s a statement on where the process is at these days. It’s very difficult.”
Jones had been criticized, both within and outside his office, for refusing to handle more drug and gang cases, instead turning some over to the Hennepin County attorney’s office for prosecution.
In a major policy speech to the American Bar Association in August, Holder appeared to embrace Jones’ approach. He announced he was asking U.S. attorneys to leave more crimes to state prosecutors to handle.
Asked if he felt vindicated by Holder’s announcement, Jones said, “It’s a validation of things that we were doing here in the district of Minnesota.”
“Change is sometimes difficult for people,” he said. “For some, it’s personally challenging and threatening, but I think my job as the United States Attorney during that time and in that environment was to make hard choices.”
Jones said he also got some internal blowback after he tightened oversight in the office under orders from Washington, which he said applied to all federal prosecutors. It came after assistant U.S. attorneys were accused in 2009 of misconduct in the corruption trial of former Sen. Ted Stevens in Alaska, which led a judge to overturn his conviction.
Jones said he introduced a requirement of “supervisory sign-off” at certain decision points in a criminal case.
“For some folks, that was difficult,” he said. “I characterize litigation as a team sport. This is not ‘Get in your kitchen and tell you how to do your cases.’ This is simply enhanced communication.”
In determining areas where the office was in the best position to prosecute, Jones said major financial fraud and national security cases rank high. And there continued to be a focus on some state Indian reservations, particularly Red Lake and Nett Lake.
For two “really hard” years, Jones said, he worked seven days a week, heading the ATF and the local U.S. attorney’s office. “The only down time I had was the two-hour flight from D.C. back here, and then I would jump in [and] usually spend weekends catching up on things that were happening in the U.S. attorney’s office.”
‘The clock is ticking’
Jones did not go into detail about his plans for the ATF but said there will be a focus on “some of the most problematic areas around the country and really addressing violent gun crime.”
His term will expire when Obama’s term ends. “I know the clock is ticking,” he said. “There is a lot to do and a renewed sense of urgency for me and the folks that work full-time to get it done.”
In the meantime, Minneapolis attorney Andy Luger is undergoing background checks before Obama formally nominates him to replace Jones as U.S. attorney in Minnesota.
“It’s been a privilege to be a U.S. attorney again,” Jones said with a smile. “And I won’t be back for a third time. … I promise. Andy’s going to do just great once he’s nominated.”
Staff writer Abby Simons contributed to this report. Randy Furst • 612-673-4224