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Melson Ousted as ATF Director; Minnesota U.S. Attorney Jones to Take Over
By David Baumann | August 30, 2022 3:10 pm

As part of an apparent ouster of Justice Department officials involved in a controversial gun probe, Kenneth Melson, acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives,  is being transferred to a new job inside the department.

B. Todd Jones, the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, will take over in an acting capacity at ATF, while Melson will become a senior advisor on forensic science in the department’s Office of Legal Policy. Jones will remain as U.S. Attorney while serving at ATF.

In addition Dennis Burke, the Arizona U.S. Attorney who supervised the troubled gun probe- known as Operation Fast and Furious- resigned Tuesday.

The moves were the most dramatic indications that Fast and Furious has become a major thorn in the side of the department and its leader, Attorney General Eric Holder.

A career federal Justice Department employee who once ran the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia, Melson appeared to abandon his role as loyal foot soldier this summer. During a private interview with Republican congressional investigators on July 4, Melson appeared with private counsel, and told them that higher-ups in the Justice Department knew about the operation,  He appeared either to be shifting the blame or maneuvering not to become the fall guy — neither of which reflected well on his leadership or bode well, it turned out, for his future.

Melson’s attorney denied he had created any rift with the department, although the Wall Street Journal had by that time already reported that Justice Department leadership was attempting to oust him.

Operation Fast and Furious allegedly resulted in at least 2,000 firearms being sold to straw buyers, who resold them to drug cartel members in Arizona. The ATF then allegedly allowed the guns to be taken Mexico, where the bureau lost track of them. Two guns from the operation were recovered in December at the scene of a shootout between Border Patrol agents and Mexican bandits near Rio Rico, Ariz., that ended in the death of agent Brian A. Terry. Other firearms sold during the operation have been linked to scenes of violent crime in Mexico.

The GOP-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, have been conducting a probe of the operation. Initially, Republicans criticized Melson’s leadership. But following a private interview with Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Grassley, the GOP critics reconsidered, saying Melson had given DOJ officials early warning about the operation.

Some Republicans later expressed concern that Melson was being made the fall guy for his superiors at DOJ. Others disagreed. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has criticized the department for the operation, said that reassigning Melson and others who may have been involved in the gun operation is not enough. “Attorney General Holder should ask for the resignations and come clean on all alleged gun-walking operations, including a detailed response to allegations of a Texas-based scheme,” Cornyn said in a statement.

In a statement Tuesday, Issa said that while changes are needed at ATF, he will continue his probe to ensure that blame isn’t “offloaded on just a few individuals for a matter that involved much higher levels of the Justice Department.”

Issa said the DOJ changes are warranted, but that DOJ officials still must answer questions about who knew that guns were being allowed to flow unchecked into Mexico.  He added, “I also remain very concerned by Acting Director Melson’s statement that the Department of Justice is managing its response in a manner intended to protect its political appointees.”

Melson gave his July 4 interview to Issa and Grassley without informing DOJ officials.

Earlier this summer, Issa and Grassley sent a letter to DOJ describing their interview with Melson. Melson, they said, acknowledged the existence of a report on the operation held by the department and said the DOJ has withheld it and other documents in an effort to protect senior officials.

“It was very frustrating to all of us, and it appears thoroughly to us that the department is really trying to figure out a way to push the information away from their political appointees at the department,” Melson said on July 4, according to the letter.

The letter also suggested a rift between Melson and department officials over the handling of congressional requests for information regarding the operation.

“I think [the department] was doing more damage control than anything,” Melson said. “My view is that the whole matter of the Department’s response in this case was a disaster. That as a result it came to fruition that the [House Oversight] committee staff had to be more assertive in attempting to get information from the department, and as a result, there was more adverse publicity toward the ATF than was warranted if we had cooperated from the very beginning.”

According to passages cited by the letter, Melson told investigators that the DOJ advised him not to raise concerns with Congress about “institutional problems” within Fast and Furious or even explain the operation to ATF agents in January following the first of the public controversy.

“Earlier on, I wanted to do a broadcast that just talked about the case, because everybody was wondering what’s this case about?” Melson said. “And I was told not to do that.

Melson’s replacement — Minnesota U.S. Attorney Jones — is a friend and confidant of Holder, signaling the attorney general is now giving high-level attention to the political problem child that is ATF. The agency has been without a Senate-confirmed director for years, primarily because of objections from Republican senators who strongly support second-amendment gun rights and object to the ATF’s federal role in enforcing gun laws.

In announcing Jones’ new position,  Holder said that he will provide steady leadership at ATF.

“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,” Holder said in a statement.  “I have great confidence that he will be a strong and steady influence guiding ATF.”

Jones has served as U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota under two presidential administrations —from 1998 to 2001 during the Clinton years, and again starting in 2009, when he was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate..

He is the chair of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee (AGAC), a group that advises Holder on management and operational issues affecting U.S. Attorneys’ offices throughout the country.  Jones previously served as a member, vice chair and chair of the AGAC from 1999 to 2001.

Melson was appointed acting director of ATF in 2009.  He was previously director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. In his new position, Melson will  focus on issues relating to policy development in forensic science.

“As he moves into this new role, I want to thank Ken for his dedication to the department over the last three decades,” Holder said in the statement.

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