President Obama's choice to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told a Senate panel on Tuesday the arrest of "straw buyers" — those who falsely buy guns for others, mostly criminals — was a top Justice Department priority but the department rarely prosecutes cases "due to limited resources."
The testimony from U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones came during a rancorous confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Republicans — led by Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa — questioned Mr. Jones' credentials, his leadership of the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota, and his role and involvement in the Fast and Furious gunrunning probe that let more than 2,000 weapons be "walked" across the U.S.-Mexico border to drug smugglers.
Mr. Jones acknowledged in questioning by Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, that of 48,321 cases involving straw buyers, the Justice Department prosecuted only 44 of them — saying that "hard decisions" to prosecute were made based on "limited resources." He also acknowledged that as the U.S. attorney in Minnesota, he never prosecuted anyone accused of being a straw buyer.
"The data demonstrates that it is not a priority for the Obama administration to prosecute those who illegally try to buy firearms," Mr. Cruz said.
Formally nominated for the ATF post in the wake of the killing of 26 people, including 20 children, in Newtown, Conn., Mr. Jones said the agency was in "distress" when he it took over on an interim basis in 2011, based on what he called "a lack of strong visionary leadership, and of accountability and attention to detail."
The White House on Monday urged the Senate to approve him, calling him a "highly qualified nominee who has decades of experience in law enforcement and a track record of effective leadership as acting ATF director."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that for the past six years, ATF has not had a confirmed director "because Senate Republicans have blocked every nominee, regardless of their qualifications."
Mr. Jones took over as acting director after the Fast and Furious operation was made public, although Mr. Grassley noted that he served as chairman of the advisory committee to Attorney General Eric H Holder Jr. from 2009 through 2011, when the operation was in effect.
Mr. Grassley had asked that the hearing be postponed, saying Mr. Jones was the focus of an open investigation by the Office of Special Counsel on his conduct as U.S. attorney in Minnesota.
"When there is a pending investigation, the committee obviously doesn't have the full information about the nominee," he said. "In this case, there are allegations of gross mismanagement and abuses of authority in Mr. Jones' office. And there is a complaint that Mr. Jones retaliated against a whistleblower. These are serious charges, and ones that are of particular concern to me."
On April 12, Mr. Grassley said the OSC reported two pending matters involving the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota — a prohibited personnel practice complaint and a whistleblower disclosure alleging gross mismanagement and abuses of authority. A month later, he said the OSC gave the committee an update, saying the whistleblower disclosure case had been closed but the prohibited personnel practice complaint was moving to mediation.
Mr. Grassley said employees within the U.S. attorneys office had written anonymously to the OSC asking for "a review of the patterns, practices, treatment, and abuse that [they] have suffered." He said they claimed Mr. Jones "ha[d] instituted a climate of fear, ha[d] pushed employees out of the office, dismissed employees wrongly, violated the hiring practices of the EEOC, and put in place an Orwellian style of management that continues to polarize the office."
Separately, he said, Donald Oswald, former special agent-in-charge of the FBI's Minnesota division, wrote to the committee to voice his concerns about Mr. Jones.
"As a retired FBI senior executive, I am one of the few voices able to publicly express our complete discontent with Mr. Jones' ineffective leadership and poor service provided to the federal law enforcement community without fear of retaliation or retribution from him," the letter states. "[Mr. Jones] was, and still remains, a significant impediment for federal law enforcement to effectively protect the citizens of Minnesota."
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