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ATF Nomination Lingers as Senate Republicans Seek Answers

Don’t expect the nomination of B. Todd Jones for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to move too quickly through the Senate. Republicans plan to press for answers on questions they have raised on a couple of fronts.

“I’ve raised some questions about him, some of those related to his job at ATF and some of those related to his job in Minnesota,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Supporters of Jones — who has been the acting ATF director since 2011 and is also the U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota — argue that he has served in both posts with distinction and that he already been confirmed by the committee and the full Senate for the U.S. attorney post.

“I think Todd Jones would be very good,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a veteran member of the Judiciary Committee. “He’s been acting, he should be director. This nonsense should be stopped.”

A committee hearing on Jones isn’t expected until the GOP lawmakers say their concerns have been addressed, both Republican and Democratic committee aides said.

Grassley wants details on Jones’ involvement in an alleged deal that the Department of Justice struck with the city of St. Paul in which the city withdrew from a Supreme Court civil rights case in exchange for the federal government agreeing not to join a pair of housing-related lawsuits against the city. The GOP contends the suits had the potential of returning more than $180 million in damages to the U.S. Treasury.

“We want to understand what his role was,” said a GOP committee aide, adding that after receiving over 1,000 pages of documents on the matter, they are in the process of setting up the interview, which will be conducted by Grassley and members of both the House Judiciary and the Oversight and Government Reform committees.

Along with Jones, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, Tony West, and Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Tom Perez will also be interviewed. Republicans charge that all were involved.

Grassley was also critical of a July video message from Jones to ATF staff that he contends was construed as a threat to whistleblowers in the agency.

He is also concerned about a letter former Minneapolis Federal Bureau of Investigation director Donald E. Oswald sent to the committee expressing opposition to Jones’ nomination shortly after he was tapped by President Barack Obama last month.

In the letter Oswald calls Jones “an ineffective leader” and a “significant impediment for federal law enforcement to effectively protect the citizens of Minnesota from violent gang, drug and gun activities.”

In addition, Grassley also has issues with Jones’ refusal to discuss with his staff and before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee the controversial Operation Fast & Furious — a failed sting operation near the Mexican border that put guns in the hands of criminals.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a supporter of Jones, said he deserves a fair hearing.

“The committee is reviewing everything; obviously we should give a fair hearing,” Klobuchar said. “I just know him as someone who has always cared about his job and has done a good job as acting director of ATF. All the problems at ATF happened before he got there and he has been fixing a lot of stuff.”

The bar is high for confirming an ATF chief: No nominee has made it through the process since the post was modified in 2006 to require Senate confirmation.

That has been the case due in large part to advocates representing gun owners and the tense relationship they have with the agency.

“The gun lobby hates this agency like the devil hates holy water, and they want to slow down anyone who’s nominated,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said at the first Judiciary Committee hearing of the year last month.

The agency has also been mired in scandal, including Fast and Furious, and has been a target of intense Republican scrutiny.

In Fast and Furious ATF agents allowed assault guns to “walk,” which meant ending surveillance on weapons suspected to be en route to Mexican drug cartels. The tactic, intended to allow agents to track criminal networks by finding the guns at crime scenes, was condemned after two guns that were part of the operation were found at the 2010 murder scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

Prior to Jones, Obama twice nominated career ATF Agent Andrew Traver in 2010 and 2011. Traver never got a hearing after Grassley sought more information about him and never received a response from the White House, according to Grassley’s office.

President George W. Bush tried to confirm Michael Sullivan, U.S. District Attorney for the District of Massachusetts in 2007. But Republicans, including Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and Sen. Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, held up Sullivan’s nomination over what they believed was overly burdensome regulation of gun owners and dealers imposed by the agency.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has also received several letters on behalf of Jones, including one from the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

“Throughout his career, Mr. Jones has demonstrated an unyielding commitment to protecting public safety,” the group said. “His years of experience as a U.S. Attorney have provided him the opportunity to work with law enforcement agencies and he has gained a unique understanding of the challenges and the complexities agencies face in combating firearms violence, gang crime, and other threats to our communities.”

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