B. Todd Jones faced off against Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) about numerous controversies that have embroiled the Justice Department during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this morning on his long-stalled nomination to become permanent director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive.
Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division Stuart Delery also appeared before the committee as part of his nomination to permanently head the division. But his presence seemed to be an afterthought for most senators on the panel who addressed less than a handful of questions to Delery while he sat next to Jones during the two-hour-long hearing.
Grassley said at the outset that he’d wanted to postpone the hearing.
“I objected to holding this hearing today and requested the hearing be postponed,” said the Iowa senator and ranking member of the committee. “As we sit here today, there remains an open investigation by the Office of Special Counsel regarding Mr. Jones’ conduct as U.S. Attorney.”
Jones, who has been pulling double duty since August 2011 as ATF acting director and the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, is the subject of an investigation that he allegedly retaliated against a prosecutor in his office.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who chaired today’s hearing, said the matter has recently been resolved with Jones and the unnamed prosecutor agreeing to enter into mediation “as often happens in employee matters across the government.”
But Grassley disputed that the investigation had concluded.
“There are also indications of a larger pattern here — one known to OSC,” the senator said.
He referenced a letter sent to the committee by Donald Oswald, a former Special Agent-in-Charge of the FBI’s Minnesota Division, who voiced concerns about Jones.
“As a retired FBI senior executive, I am one of the few voices able to publicly express our complete discontent with Mr. Jones’ ineffective leadership and poor service provided to the federal law enforcement community without fear of retaliation or retribution from him,” Oswald wrote.
Jones told the senators he was “quite shocked when I saw the copy of that letter,” adding: “My perception was that we had a professional working relationship.”
Coming to Jones’ defense, Klobuchar said it can be difficult to “manage lawyers and to manage cops.”
Jones himself said he made significant changes both at AFT and in the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“Quite frankly, I have been an agent of change and change is hard sometimes for individuals to deal with,” he said.
Jones became acting ATF director in 2011 after former acting Director Ken Melson was ousted over the agency’s handling of a botched gun-walking investigation.
And Grassley, along with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) pressed Jones on what he had done to respond to fallout from Operation Fast and Furious. At one point, Grassley began reading a list of names of the ATF folks involved in the operation to find out whether they had been disciplined.
Jones declined to say what had happened to each individual, noting that a few had opted to retire. But he did acknowledge that ATF Deputy Assistant Director William McMahon had been fired.
“He was terminated. He was not allowed to retire,” Jones said.
Jones said he has “conducted top to bottom review of all ATF policies and procedures” and since his arrival has “worked to refocus the bureau to combat violent crime and enhance public safety.”
Klobuchar, along with fellow Minnesota Sen. Al Franken (D) and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D), praised the agency — under Jones’ leadership — for aiding in law enforcement response to the Boston Marathon bombings and the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Blumenthal asked Jones about the lack of sufficient prosecutions of gun-related crimes. “I’d like you to comment on what you view as the reasons or ways we can improve that rate of prosecution,” he said.
“First, you need a vibrant and healthy ATF,” Jones responded, adding: “Part of the reason I’m here for this process is because they need a confirmed director. They’ve never had one.”
Noting that “ATF is not completely healthy,” he said the agency’s “biggest challenge is its human capital” and suggested that within the next five years, nearly a third of the special agents would be at retirement age.
“There’s a lot of talent out there and a lot of talent inside the bureau — what we need to do is very quickly match that up so we don’t diminish our capacity,” he said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) brought up the gun control debate, sparking a discussion about the Obama administration’s “major priorities,” including why — the senator said — the administration failed to aggressively prosecute so-called straw purchases, where somebody with a clean record buys guns for someone who wouldn’t pass a background check.
Growing visibly agitated with their back-and-forth on the issue, Jones told Cruz that his department has “made hard decisions with our resources. Priority number one is national security. In Minnesota, we’ve made major efforts on that front.”
Klobuchar again came to Jones’ defense, noting that “the violent crime rate in Texas is twice that of the rate in Minnesota. This idea during your term that somehow work isn’t being done is not supported by these numbers,” she told the nominee.
She also noted “the many people here in law enforcement in this room who support you,” including the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Chuck Canterbury.
Meanwhile, Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) and Grassley both asked Jones about his views on whistleblowers.
He pointed to the Inspector General’s report, which “exemplified the importance whistleblowers played in the Fast-and Furious issue” and added: “Any misperception that I do not believe in open channels of communication and respect for whistleblower protections and I hope has been and will continue to be diminished.”