Senate launches probe of ATF nominee

The Senate Judiciary Committee has launched an investigation into allegations against the Obama administration’s nominee to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

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The bipartisan probe of B. Todd Jones, who has served as the acting director of the ATF and the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, was launched in hopes of resolving objections raised by the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has threatened to block the nomination.

Democrats have struggled to confirm a permanent head of the ATF for years and see Jones as their best chance. President Obama nominated Jones earlier this year as part of his 23 proposals to tighten gun laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 20 children and six adults.

Earlier this week, Grassley criticized committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) for moving ahead with Tuesday's confirmation hearing while the Justice Department’s Office of Special Counsel (OSC) was in the mediation stages of its own investigation of Jones.

“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 Grassley in his opening remarks at Jones’s hearing on Tuesday.

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

But Leahy — who initiated the committee’s probe this week to accommodate Grassley’s objections — believes the OSC investigation is almost complete and that the panel should move forward with its confirmation process.

The OSC launched its independent investigation in April after an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Minnesota office accused Jones of “gross mismanagement and abuses of authority.”

The assistant U.S. Attorney later filed a second complaint with the OSC alleging that Jones retaliated against him for filing the initial complaint.

Earlier this month, the OSC notified Leahy and Grassley that it had closed its first investigation into Jones because of a lack of evidence.

The office also stated that Jones and the assistant U.S. Attorney were engaged in mediation concerning the charges of retaliation, which is when Leahy decided to move ahead with the confirmation hearing.

“Satisfied that the issues before OSC were heading for resolution, I made the decision to not further delay this hearing,” said Leahy in opening remarks submitted for the record.

Leahy had delayed the hearing from June 4 after Grassley opposed moving forward with it. Grassley demanded that the committee either conduct its own probe or he would call outside witnesses to appear with Jones at the hearing — an uncommon practice for confirmation hearings.

So Leahy’s staff on Monday reached out to Grassley with an offer to conduct an inquiry into the allegations raised by the OSC probes.

Grassley agreed late Tuesday, though he objected to the timing of the interviews — set to take place later this week, on Friday.

“Late yesterday, we received from the majority an offer to conduct some interviews this coming Friday, after today’s hearing,” said Grassley.

“That is quite perplexing to me. We are going to begin the investigation after the hearing is concluded. When has the committee ever conducted an investigation after the hearing for that nominee?”

Leahy said he aims to complete the inquiry into the allegations surrounding Jones, so that the committee can move forward with a vote on the nominee.

The ATF has been without a permanent director since 2006, when the National Rifle Association (NRA) began lobbying senators to block nominees, fearing that they would bring about changes to gun laws.

The agency has gone through five acting directors during that time period, which has hindered the efficacy of the ATF, Democrats argue.

Jones took over as acting head of the ATF after the failed gun tracking operation, "Fast and Furious," was brought to light.