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New ATF chief joins an agency shaken by gun scandal

WASHINGTON — 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. Todd Jones, 54, the man chosen to head the embattled Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, is also a seasoned prosecutor who heads an advisory committee of U.S. attorneys across the country for Attorney General Eric Holder.

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-month-long congressional investigation.

The fury over tactics, which allowed 2,000 firearms to hit the streets, led to the reassignment Tuesday of ATF's acting director, Kenneth Melson, and the resignation of Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, along with the reassignments of an Arizona prosecutor and several top ATF officials. The Justice Department's inspector general is looking into Fast and Furious, 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."

Several law enforcement officials praised Jones.

"Todd is a man of unquestionable integrity and ethical values," said Thomas Smith, the police chief of St. Paul, Minn., 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 Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, has worked with Jones and called him "a natural leader and a very straight shooter."

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

Jones will commute between Washington and Minneapolis, where he remains the U.S. attorney. He was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 and served in the same position under President Bill Clinton.

His dual role is not unprecedented. Then-acting ATF director Michael 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. Obama'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 he raised the ire of the gun lobby with comments they have criticized. The National Rifle Association has said Traver is linked to gun-control advocates and antigun activities.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam declined to comment on Jones but said the NRA "continues to be outraged" by Fast and Furious.

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

New ATF chief joins an agency shaken by gun scandal 09/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 3, 2011 8:53pm]
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