The nomination of B. Todd Jones to be permanent director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, already under harsh scrutiny from a key Republican senator, may have hit a bigger snag with comments from a former FBI official asserting that Jones acquired an “atrocious professional reputation” as United States Attorney for Minnesota.
On Thursday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a statement reiterating his skepticism about Jones’ fitness to lead the ATF, an agency the senator said was “riddled with problems.” Grassley complained that Jones, who has been pulling double duty since August 2011 as ATF acting director and the top federal prosecutor in Minnesota, had been far from forthcoming in responding to questions from the committee for information.
“I believe the ATF needs a Senate confirmed director. However, if we are prohibited from asking questions about important matters that get to the core of leadership, character, and candor about a nominee’s ability to run an agency, it makes our job that much harder,” Grassley said at a Senate Judiciary Committee business meeting yesterday.
And while Grassley did not mention it, a letter to the committee from Donald E. Oswald, the former Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s office in Minnesota, could further weaken Jones’ chances. “In the letter, Oswald says Jones has an ‘atrocious professional reputation,’ and was motivated by ‘personal political gain,’” according to a report on KMSP-TV, serving Minneapolis and St. Paul. “Oswald wrote that federal prosecutors repeatedly turned down cases involving gangs, drugs, and guns under Jones,” the TV report said.
KMPS reported that “while federal and local law enforcement officials have complained privately about the priorities of the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Todd Jones, none have been willing to go on the record — until Oswald, that is.” Oswald worked in the Minneapolis FBI office for one year, retiring in May of 2012, and is now an attorney in private practice in Florida, the station reported.
But Ralph Boelter, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Minneapolis office from 2007 through 2011, said he had a good relationship with Jones, according to a report by KSTP in Minneapolis-St. Paul. “We were in sync,” Boelter told the station. “Now did we agree on everything? No, that would not be reality … because the issues you encounter together are complex.” But Boelter said he didn’t experience anything like the behavior Oswald described, the station reported.
Jeanne Cooney, spokesperson for the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s office, declined to comment on matters related to Jones’s pending ATF nomination. But she said the office will be “very sorry to see him go,” if Jones is confirmed at ATF director.
“We view him as a very dedicated, hardworking U.S. Attorney and a friend to this office. On the other hand, ATF would be getting a great director,” Cooney told Main Justice.
Some of the disagreement over Jones’ effectiveness as United States Attorney can be attributed to a shift in priorities. As KSMP noted, Jones has said he doesn’t want to waste limited federal resources on “street level” drug dealers, for example, preferring to turn the heat up on suspects in international terrorism and complex, white-collar cases. “The world’s changed, and we have different priorities,” Jones told the Star Tribune in December. “If some elements in law enforcement disagree with that prosecutorial decision … then I’m sorry.”
Jones’ potential troubles with the Senate Judiciary Committee are not limited to disputes over his priorities. Grassley complained that Jones hasn’t sat for interviews with his staff or agreed to appear before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about Operation Fast and Furious.
Jones was made acting ATF director in 2011 after former acting director Ken Melson was ousted over the agency’s handling of the botched gun investigation.
Grassley also said yesterday he is concerned about a video message Jones distributed to ATF staff last year that “many construed as a threat to whistleblowers in the ATF.” The Fast and Furious investigation arose after an ATF whistleblower aired his concerns with members of Congress. “His involvement in this matter must be examined,” Grassley said of Jones.
Grassley ticked off other issues that bothered him, including a report in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel a few days ago about a string operation in which the ATF lost track of a machine gun and various merchandise. “I am sending a letter to ATF to get to the bottom of this latest controversy, which occurred under Mr. Jones’s leadership,” Grassley said.
The senator’s latest comments, coupled with the latest attacks on Jones, suggest that Jones’ reception by the Senate Judiciary Committee will be as cold as the weather in Minneapolis-St. Paul region. It was 11 below zero there on Friday morning.