Grassley threatens to hold up ATF nominee over separate dispute

The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee is threatening to hold up President Obama’s nominee to be the director of the ATF until the Justice Department forks over documents in an unrelated case.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wants the Department of Justice to give lawmakers access to 1,200 documents that allegedly detail the agency’s agreement to drop a False Claims Act case against St. Paul, Minn., in exchange for the city ditching an unconnected case before the Supreme Court.

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Without the documents, Grassley said he would hold up the nomination of acting Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Director B. Todd Jones, who is also the U.S. attorney for Minnesota. Grassley contends that the Senate must thoroughly examine what role Jones played in the deal with St. Paul.

“As the U.S. attorney for Minnesota, he was aware of this arrangement and the details of how the agreement came to be,” Grassley said during the committee’s executive business meeting on Thursday.

“His emails are among the 1,200 documents that the Justice Department has refused to produce to the House and Senate as part of this investigation.

“At a minimum, those documents are necessary for us to completely and thoroughly examine his background and fitness to lead an agency that is riddled with problems.”

Obama nominated Jones as part of his 23 executive actions taken earlier this month to address gun violence in response to the shooting at a Connecticut elementary school last month that killed 20 children and six adults.

ATF hasn’t had a confirmed director since Congress required confirmation for the position in 2006. The president could previously appoint the director without Senate confirmation.

Many gun rights supporters are suspicious of the ATF, believing it wants to increase restrictions on gun ownership. They believe that if the ATF does not have a permanent director, its efforts to regulate and enforce restrictions will be hampered.

At the onset of the Senate Judiciary Committee's first hearing on gun control Wednesday, Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) pressed his colleagues to move forward with Jones's nomination, saying it was important to cutting down on the level of gun violence throughout the country.

“I trust that all senators will cooperate in a prompt hearing and action on that nomination and will join in good faith to strengthen our law enforcement efforts against gun violence and to protect public safety,” Leahy said.

Grassley has voiced his support for confirming a director of the ATF but on Thursday said he is uncertain Jones is the man for the job.

He said Thursday he will not settle for a good-faith promise from the DOJ to hand over the documents.

“With all due respect to the department, I’ve been down that road before,” he said.

Grassley held up Deputy Attorney General James Cole’s nomination for months last year, arguing for access to DOJ documents on the botched "Fast and Furious" gun-tracking operation, which oversaw the sale of nearly 2,000 weapons to criminals in the Southwest region.

Grassley said he received assurances from the DOJ that it would cooperate with his requests if he released his hold on Cole.

“Based on that commitment, we voted on Mr. Cole’s nomination, and the cooperation dried up,” Grassley said on Thursday.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has launched a civil contempt lawsuit against Attorney General Eric Holder to access some of those documents.

Issa joined with Grassley in the more recent request for information on the DOJ’s quid pro quo case with the city of St. Paul. Together they wrote to Holder last September asking to speak with Jones and Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez and be given access to documents related to the case.

The lawmakers contend that the DOJ asked St. Paul city attorneys to drop a Supreme Court case that could have hampered the government’s ability to continue getting large financial settlements from banks that it sues for housing discrimination.

In return, Issa and Grassley say the DOJ agreed to drop an unrelated lawsuit against the city, which charged that St. Paul officials were not properly using federal funds geared toward improving low-income job opportunities. If the DOJ had won that case, the government could have recouped as much as $180 million in taxpayer funds, the lawmakers said.

“Congress and the public have a right to know the full rationale for the department’s decision to cast aside the careful analysis of career department attorneys on the merits of a case with tens of millions in taxpayer dollars at stake in order to get a litigant to drop a completely unrelated case,” the Republicans wrote.

The DOJ did not return a request for comment.