The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is fighting for its life. The agency is under pressure from Republicans in Congress after a botched gun-trafficking operation known as "Fast and Furious," and the scandal has already cost the ATF leader and a top prosecutor their jobs.
Now, the Obama administration is counting on a new leader, B. Todd Jones, to try to get the agency back on track. Jones spent years as a U.S. Marine, and he's got the direct approach to prove it.
"There are going to be some changes that happen, and there'll be a refocusing on our primary mission, which is violent crime," he tells NPR.
In his first few days on the job, Jones has been listening to employees in Washington, and he'll soon be headed out for one-on-one meetings across the country.
He says ATF employees shouldn't be consumed by two big congressional investigations of the agency's conduct or an ongoing review by the Justice Department's inspector general.
"Do not be distracted," Jones says. "This is a good agency; it's got a lot of professionals in it; it's got an expertise I think that doesn't exist in other parts of the government, with respect to firearms, violent crime, explosives and everything related to that."
Some ATF agents have worried that Jones, the top federal prosecutor in Minnesota, might not understand what investigators do on the streets every day. But he says he commanded a military police unit in the Marines and built violent crime and conspiracy cases with ATF agents when he worked as an assistant U.S. attorney earlier in his career.
When The Going Gets Tough ...
Tim Dolan, the police chief in Minneapolis, says he wants Jones on his side in a fight. He asked Jones, then in private law practice, to be an independent investigator in a police-involved shooting years ago.
"He's somebody that you want standing there next to you when things are going badly," Dolan says.
Lately, Dolan has worked closely with Jones to reduce gun violence in the city. Jones found a way to bring a federal case against two men who robbed a coffee shop and pistol-whipped employees there. Jones got prison sentences of almost 30 years for both of them. Under the old approach, they would have gotten much shorter sentences in the state courts, Dolan says.
"Anybody that meets him is going to have a hard time not liking Todd Jones," Dolan says. "And yet, you know, he's a type of guy, like I say, when the going gets tough, he can be one of the toughest guys in the room."
And Jones has been in tough spots before. Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar nominated Jones to be the U.S. attorney in the state at the start of the Obama administration. She says he was the best person to take charge of a place that had suffered bad headlines in the George W. Bush years.
"Todd walked in an office that had been bruised and had been in the news — when in fact they always had this amazing reputation — and he really righted the ship and did a great job," says Klobuchar. "The office is back to where it once was and in fact just prosecuted the second-biggest white-collar case in the country" against convicted Ponzi schemer Thomas Petters.
Klobuchar says Jones will bring a secret weapon to the new job: a disarming sense of humor. Years ago, when she served as the top prosecutor in Hennepin County, Minn., she met with Jones to try to improve the relationship between the federal and local authorities. They came up with the idea of throwing a party in the U.S. attorney's office, and before Klobuchar's employees arrived, she says Jones got on the intercom and hollered, "Nail down the furniture. The cousins are comin' over."
That personal dynamic paid off. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when federal authorities were preoccupied with the terrorism case against al-Qaida member Zacarias Moussaoui, Klobuchar's county prosecutors picked up some of the slack on white-collar crime.
California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, whose House committee has been at the forefront of investigating the failed gun trafficking operation by ATF, says making a change at the top of the agency won't be enough.
"The Oversight and Government Reform Committee will continue its investigation 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 in a written statement.
"This is not about individual people, because individual people will always be flawed," he tells NPR. "This is about a system that allowed those flaws to go on for a long period of time, and not have the kind of check and balance that the American people expect."
The Justice Department continues to share documents with Issa and other lawmakers, and Issa says he expects to have more hearings this fall.
Two veteran ATF employees who have heard Jones speak since he took over the new job say they came away impressed. But they worry that given the political reality, there may not be room for Jones to do a major overhaul.
Jones will serve as the ATF's acting director. Given the political fights over gun rights, it's unlikely he or anyone else will be confirmed by the Senate. So Jones is keeping his job as U.S. attorney in Minnesota, which could require some juggling.
"If anyone can balance it well, it will be Todd Jones," Klobuchar says, pointing out that Jones has already managed his busy day job and five children.
For his part, Jones says that by the end of September, when the government's fiscal year ends, he'll start putting some of his ideas into practice.
"There'll be some bodies moving around," he says. "There are things that need to be done here, and we're going to move forward on them whether I have an acting title or not."
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