The Washington Post

New ATF chief B. Todd Jones joins an agency shaken by guns scandal

A cache of firearms waiting to be destroyed is shown in the gun vault on March 5, 2010 at the ATF National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, WV. (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)

He is a former Marine who has twice served as the U.S. attorney in Minnesota, the first African American to hold that post. He’s a movie buff who likes to show clips from films during meetings to explain a point. He’s the father of five, a University of Minnesota law school graduate and a former military judge advocate.

B. (Byron) Todd Jones, 54, the man chosen to head the embattled Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, is also a seasoned prosecutor who chairs an advisory committee of U.S. attorneys across the country for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

Jones is stepping into an agency rocked by controversy over the “Fast and Furious” gun trafficking operation. What began in Arizona as an ambitious plan to follow guns bought by illegal “straw-purchasers” into the Sinaloa Mexican drug cartel resulted in a seven-months-long congressional investigation.

The fury over tactics, which allowed 2,000 firearms to hit the streets, led to the reassignment Tuesday of ATF acting director Kenneth Melson and the resignation of Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, along with the reassignment of an Arizona prosecutor and several top ATF officials. The Justice Department’s inspector general is probing the sting, as are Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has held several hearings into the year-long operation.

Jones acknowledged the damage to ATF, saying in an interview that the agency has “seen a rough period in the recent past.” Jones said he is “excited” about getting to work to rebuild the agency’s morale.

“Nobody does violent crime work like ATF,” Jones said. “I’m prepared to stay as long as it takes to provide leadership and focus and get them back on their primary law enforcement mission. They’re good at what they do and they need to hear that from somebody who’s coming straight from the field.”

Jones, with Holder, held a town-hall meeting Thursday to introduce himself to ATF employees.

Several law enforcement officials praised Jones.

“Todd is a man of unquestionable integrity and ethical values,” said St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith, who has known him for years. “To be a good leader, you’ve got to be a great listener. That’s one of his main strengths.

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, who has worked closely with Jones, called him “a natural leader and a very straight shooter.”

Fitzgerald said, “the agents will find someone who listens to their concerns, takes it all in, comes to a decision and moves forward.”

Jones will commute between Washington and Minneapolis, where he remains the U.S. attorney. Appointed by President Obama in 2009, he also served in the same position under President Clinton.

His dual role is not unprecedented. Then-acting ATF director Michael J. Sullivan, nominated by President George W. Bush, remained U.S. attorney in Boston, juggling the two jobs.

Sullivan, along with several other ATF nominees over the past six years, was never confirmed by Congress to head the agency. The ATF has been without a permanent director since 2006, when Congress required the position to be confirmed by the Senate. Because one senator can hold up a nomination, gun lobbying organizations are able to block confirmation of a director.

Jones is not Obama’s nominee to head ATF; he moves into his new job as the interim acting director and does not face a confirmation battle. The president’s nominee is Andrew Traver, a 24-year ATF veteran who oversees the bureau’s Chicago office. His nomination has been stalled in the Senate since November because Traver raised the ire of the gun lobby with comments they have criticized as anti-firearms. The National Rifle Association has said Traver is linked to gun-control advocates and anti-gun activities.

The resignations of Melson and Burke were intended to quell the controversy over Fast and Furious, but lawmakers launched a new salvo Thursday by demanding more information about the operation from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona.

“The level of involvement of the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona in the genesis and implementation of this case is striking,” Issa and Grassley wrote in a four-page letter to acting U.S. Attorney Ann Scheel.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam would not comment on Jones but said the NRA “continues to be outraged” by Fast and Furious.

Issa also focused on the botched gun operation in a statement he released about Jones’s appointment. “He certainly has a challenge ahead of him healing ATF and rebuilding lost trust,” Issa said.

For his part, Jones said he is “psyched” to get to work. And movie buff that he is, he has a favorite film in mind: “Twelve 0’Clock High,” the 1949 picture starring Gregory Peck about a combat unit where morale is low.

“As we move forward, we face a more important challenge than what’s been going on outside of ATF these last several months — what’s going on inside ATF,” Jones wrote in an e-mail to ATF employees. “We have important work to do and that is what I want you to focus on — and what I will be focused on in the coming months.”

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department and criminal justice issues nationwide for The Washington Post, where she has been a reporter for 30 years.

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