President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the agency charged with enforcing national gun laws said Tuesday the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was "in distress" when he it took over on an interim basis in 2011.
"There had been a lack of strong visionary leadership, and of accountability and attention to detail," B. Todd Jones said in an opening statement submitted for a hearing on his Senate nomination. He said he had appointed 22 new special agents in charge in the agency's 25 field divisions and worked "on creating a leadership team to strengthen the bureau" on its various missions.
He was appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee five months after Obama called on lawmakers to approve his choice to lead he bureau, and nearly six months after 26 people, including 20 children, were shot to death in Newtown, Conn. It was one of several mass shootings over the past year that have spurred Obama and gun-control advocates to call for action.
So far, those efforts have failed. Gun control advocates, including some families of the victims from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, are in Washington this week to again push lawmakers to support expanding background checks for gun purchases. The Senate rejected a bill to do that in April.
Jones was just the second ATF nominee to face congressional questioning since the Senate was given authority to approve the agency's chief in 2006. The powerful gun lobby has worked aggressively and successfully behind the scenes since then to convince lawmakers to not even give a previous nominee a hearing. The NRA has not publicly endorsed or opposed Jones' nomination.
Democrats in control of the committee pushed for the hearing in opposition to their Republican counterparts.
Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley said Tuesday the hearing was premature with what he described as a series of outstanding questions about Jones' conduct as U.S. attorney and temporary head of ATF yet to be answered.
"Why are we even here today?" Grassley asked after outlining a series of concerns he had about Jones' work in Minnesota and what, if anything, he may know about the agency's widely criticized "Fast and Furious" gun-smuggling sting operation. "That's a question I don't think anyone can answer."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who is leading the hearing, said the unwillingness of the Senate to approve a permanent director doesn't make any sense.
"I think that's wrong. Something is wrong when the Senate fails to confirm the head of an agency for seven years," Klobuchar said.
Like his predecessors, Jones' nomination is likely a longshot, despite vocal support from law enforcement and the White House. The bureau has never had a confirmed director.
The White House again Monday urged the Senate to approve him.
"Todd Jones is 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. "The ATF is a critical law enforcement agency that helps protect our communities from dangerous criminals, gun violence and acts of terror, yet for the past six years it has been serving without a confirmed director because Senate Republicans have blocked every nominee, regardless of their qualifications."
Jones, 55, took over the agency on an interim basis in 2011, after the Fast and Furious operation was made public. But lawmakers, including Grassley, have questioned what he knew about the operation before taking over ATF.
Jones chaired an advisory committee to Attorney General Eric Holder from 2009 through 2011, when the operation was in effect. That committee doesn't have oversight over any law enforcement operations, but Grassley and others insist that Jones should answer questions about whatever he knows of the program that allowed thousands of guns to be smuggled across the border with Mexico and into the hands of some of Mexico's most violent drug cartels.
The Iowa senator and others have also pressed Jones to answer questions about decisions he made in a false claims case involving the city of St. Paul, Minn. They have accused Jones and the Justice Department of agreeing to drop the case against the city so long as the city dropped an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in an unrelated case.
The former head of the Minneapolis FBI office, Donald Oswald, has also written a letter to Congress accusing Jones of impeding federal prosecutions of gang, drug and gun laws.
Oswald said Jones was "substantially motivated by personal political gain and not by doing what's in the best interest of the citizens he is sworn to protect."
Jones, who was appointed U.S. attorney in Minnesota in 2009, has declined to discuss Oswald's allegations and other issues surrounding his nomination.