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ATF Nominee Faces Retaliation Inquiry

An independent government watchdog is probing allegations that President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, B. Todd Jones, improperly retaliated against a whistle-blower while working in his current job as a federal prosecutor in Minnesota.

The investigation by the Office of Special Counsel is the latest complication surrounding Jones’ nomination to lead the ATF, a 5,000-employee law enforcement agency tasked with regulating the nation’s firearms industry. Obama nominated Jones on Jan. 16 as part of his broader plan to address gun violence following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Carolyn N. Lerner, the head of the Office of Special Counsel, wrote in an April 12 letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and ranking Republican Charles E. Grassley of Iowa that her office has launched an investigation into allegations that Jones retaliated against a subordinate while working as the U.S. attorney in Minnesota, a position he has held since August 2009. Jones has worked simultaneously as the ATF’s acting director since August 2011.

The subordinate, an assistant U.S. attorney, “alleges that personnel actions, including a suspension and a lower performance appraisal, were taken in retaliation for protected whistle-blowing or other protected activity,” according to Lerner’s letter, which was provided to CQ Roll Call by an aide to Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The assistant U.S. attorney’s complaint was filed March 11, two months after Obama nominated Jones to the ATF position.

Lerner wrote that her office is also reviewing a second complaint against Jones made by the same assistant U.S. attorney, alleging “gross mismanagement and abuses of authority in the Narcotics and Violent Crime Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Minnesota.” That complaint, also filed March 11, is still being vetted and has not been referred for an investigation, she wrote.

Lerner added that the Office of Special Counsel has dismissed a third complaint about Jones — made in the form of an anonymous letter from “Employees of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Minnesota” — “because OSC did not have enough information to initiate a substantive inquiry into the concerns raised by the letter.” The anonymous letter, which was dated July 20, 2012, and also provided to CQ Roll Call, alleged that Jones “has instituted a climate of fear” at the federal prosecutor’s office in Minnesota.

Grassley inquired about the anonymous letter in a letter to Lerner on April 8, prompting Lerner to respond and disclose the other complaints and the ongoing investigation into Jones.

The White House did not return requests for comment.

Mounting Problems for Nominee

While the Office of Special Counsel has not made any determinations about the allegations made against Jones, the inquiries are the latest indication that his nomination for a sensitive, politically charged position might be in trouble.

The ATF has lacked a permanent director since 2006, when Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., inserted language into the reauthorization of an anti-terrorism law to require Senate confirmation for the position. Gun rights advocates, who have long viewed the ATF with suspicion, have opposed nominees from both parties.

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