GOP threatens to block ATF nominee

Senate Republicans on Tuesday threatened to block President Obama’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) after grilling him for more than two hours.

GOP lawmakers slammed Democrats for holding the confirmation hearing for B. Todd Jones while he is under investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Special Counsel.

“We're left today to take Mr. Jones's word. We have no way of independently verifying what he says or ascertain the truth of the matter,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

ADVERTISEMENT
“It is unfortunate that we go ahead with this hearing before an open complaint is resolved.”

Jones is under investigation for allegations that he retaliated against a whistle-blower while serving as U.S. Attorney for Minnesota. Details of the investigation are sparse because the probe is ongoing.

The ATF nominee told the senators he has never taken any adverse actions against an employee and said he was surprised by the allegations.

“Whether it's at ATF or the at the U.S. Attorney's office, in both situations I came into a less-than-perfect environment and I, quite frankly, have been an agent of change. And change is hard sometimes for individuals to deal with,” said Jones.

“I've always had a focus on doing the right thing for the right reasons and sometimes folks are not happy about the direction overall.”

Grassley, who lambasted Jones during his opening remarks, pressed the Judiciary Committee to launch its own investigation into the charges facing Jones.

The ATF has lacked a permanent director for nearly seven years, partly due to efforts by the National Rifle Association (NRA). In 2006, the NRA began lobbying heavily for senators to oppose confirming a permanent head of the ATF, arguing that the agency could impose new restrictive laws on gun owners.

The agency has also been the focal point of GOP probes into the botched gun-tracking operation Fast and Furious. Jones was appointed acting director of the agency after the Fast and Furious affair was brought to light.

On Tuesday, Jones described taking over an agency “very much in distress” with low morale among employees.

The first thing he did as acting director, he said, was to visit the Phoenix field division — the home base for the Fast and Furious operation  — and begin the process of firing and demoting the people responsible.

“I built a new leadership team,” said Jones. “I put 22 new special agents in charge, 23 headquarters executives, conducted a top-to-bottom review of all of ATF policies and procedures, and we have overhauled nearly 50 orders and directives.”

Democrats on the panel defended Jones’s tenure as acting director, saying that he took over an agency fractured by a lack of permanent leadership.

Jones was officially nominated by Obama earlier this year as one of his 23 proposals to enhance the nation's gun laws following the mass shooting of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn.