U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones on Tuesday was assigned to clean up the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) after the existing director was removed after an arms sting went wrong.
Jones, now in his second term as the top federal attorney in Minnesota, was named to replace ATF acting director Kenneth Melson. Jones will continue to serve as U.S. attorney while assuming his new duties Wednesday.
"The attorney general told me, 'We need you to go there, take a look and get this squared away,'" Jones said on Tuesday.
Andrew Traver, who has led the ATF in Illinois since 2004, is President Obama's nominee for the permanent job. But he still has not been confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and his appointment is opposed by the National Rifle Association.
Melson, acting director since April 2009, was on the hot seat in Congress for a botched attempt to track firearms flowing from the United States to drug cartels along the U.S.-Mexico border. The operation, called "Fast and Furious," was meant to track illegal gun sales by following small-time gun buyers through the pipeline to major weapons traffickers.
But the strategy failed -- and many guns ended up in the hands of criminals. According to an ATF intelligence analyst, about 1,400 of the more than 2,000 weapons linked to the operation have not been recovered.
Melson's reassignment -- he will become a senior adviser on forensic science in the Justice Department -- is a result of admitted mistakes in the sting operation, according to reports by Reuters and the Wall Street Journal.
A 'strong record'
The investigation into the "Fast and Furious" operation is ongoing, Jones said, but "I'm not going there to deal with 'Fast and Furious.' I'm going there to get the agency back to its primary focus."
That focus, according to the ATF, is to protect communities from violent criminals and the illegal trafficking of firearms and explosives.
On Tuesday, Jones was touted for doing that as U.S. attorney for Minnesota.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who has known Jones for years, said: "As a seasoned prosecutor and former military judge advocate, U.S. Attorney Jones is a demonstrated leader who brings a wealth of experience to this position. I have great confidence that he will be a strong and steady influence."
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar praised Jones for his "impeccable character." Klobuchar has worked with Jones in two capacities: when she was Hennepin County attorney while he was U.S. attorney the first time, and when she recommended that Obama reappoint Jones in 2009.
He has a record of working well with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, she said. As a former Marine, he is also used to difficult jobs, Klobuchar said.
"He has a record of being able to lead in difficult times," Klobuchar said.
Bernard J. Zapor, special agent in charge of the ATF's St. Paul field division, pointed to Jones' work on Project Exile, a collaborative effort to combat local gun violence through federal investigations and penalties.
"Todd has been an effective U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota, emphasizing violent gun crime," Zapor said. "His ability to communicate directly on behalf of the ATF to the Department of Justice will benefit public safety nationally."
Doing double duty
Zapor said he has no doubt that Jones can handle both jobs.
Doing double duty as U.S. attorney and director of the ATF is not without precedent. Michael Sullivan served as acting director of the ATF during his last two years on the job as U.S. attorney in Boston. He was appointed by former President George W. Bush.
Jones said he will rely on technology and "a terrific staff" in Minnesota to juggle both jobs. But, he noted, there are five direct flights to Washington from the Twin Cities each day and, at least in the beginning, he will spend quite a bit of time in the nation's capital. Jones said he is not receiving additional pay beyond his salary as U.S. attorney.
When asked how long he thinks he will lead the ATF, Jones said: "Until the nominee is confirmed."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428