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Federal Agent

How B. Todd Jones became the man to put the U.S. attorney’s house back in order

Federal Agent
Photo by Todd Buchanan

(page 1 of 3)

Last year, when B. Todd Jones walked though the big doors on the sixth floor of the U.S. federal building in downtown Minneapolis, many things were the same. The windows in his corner office framed the same urban skyline. The carpets were the same: gray, industrial, all business. The mission was the same: enforcing federal law. And there were still plenty of bad seeds out there committing crimes—and plenty of ways for Jones, a Justice Department veteran, to go after them.

But at the same time, things were different. There was more gray in Jones’s hair. The fraud figures he encountered had more zeros on the end. There was a new No. 1 mission: anti-terrorism. And there was also an edgy, irritated, and rankled vibe, left by Jones’s predecessor, flowing through the office—one that Jones’s very presence was meant to calm.

The last time Jones had been here, occupying the seat of U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota, was back in early 2001. It was a different age—an era when we were still reeling from talk of stained dresses and “right-wing conspiracies,” when we were still irrational and exuberant about the housing market and all things dot-com. It was pre-9/11, before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, before terrorism and homeland security became America’s watchwords, before Alberto Gonzales took charge of the Justice Department and before Rachel Paulose became his agent in Minnesota. It was, in other words, a long, long time ago. And now, nearly 10 years after vacating the position of U.S. attorney, Jones was at it once more. This was round two. Or rather, as Jones, an unabashed movie fan, might put it, it was the beginning of Todd Jones II: The U.S. Attorney Rides Again.

Simply put, a U.S. attorney is a lawyer who represents Uncle Sam. The job involves prosecuting federal crimes, defending the government in court, and collecting money owed to the feds. The country’s 93 U.S. attorneys, each representing a particular district (some the size of an entire state—like Minnesota; others just a portion of one), are charged with stamping out terrorism, corruption, fraud, organized crime, drugs, and violence. The Minnesota office is regularly in the news: arresting more than 30 people last year in an effort to break up a Mexican drug cartel; or jailing 14 men because they were allegedly supporting al-Shabaab in Somalia; or prosecuting white-collar criminals like Denny Hecker and Tom Petters.

A U.S. attorney is supposed to be apolitical, prosecuting cases without regard to party agendas and affiliation, blind to everything except justice. But to get the job, an applicant must have deep political connections—enough to warrant recommendation by the senior senator in his or her state, then nomination by the president, and finally confirmation by the Senate. After a new president is elected, he or she is expected to graciously step down—as Jones did in early 2001—to make way for the new administration’s people, who presumably have a new set of priorities.

But even more than politics, personal convictions and professional ambitions often shape the role of the U.S. attorney. All of which is to say, it is a powerful position, and some, like Rudy Giuliani, in New York, and David Lillehaug, in Minnesota, have used it as a launching pad for their political ambitions. Others, like Patrick Fitzgerald in Chicago, seem more interested in keeping their heads down and pushing justice ahead. The latter was Todd Jones’s approach—at least, the first time around.

 As a young man, Jones never imagined he’d be sitting in the U.S. attorney’s chair, holding down a position of such influence. If you look back far enough, you can almost see him when he first got to the Twin Cities: a kid from Cincinnati, climbing out of his car on some street over by Macalester. He was skinny, but that’s because he was a runner. He had a big Afro, but that’s because it was 1975. His name was Byron, after his dad, but he didn’t much fancy being “Junior.” Todd was a better fit.

When Jones shut the door of his Plymouth Duster, an old phone-company car his dad had gotten for cheap, you could still see light patches where the corporate decals had recently come off. The car might not have been as big as the station wagon his dad once used to haul Jones and his three younger siblings to drive-in movies, but the Duster was okay, and Jones was happy to have wheels of any kind.

Walking across campus, trying to make sense of this big city in all its whiteness, Jones quickly found his footing. He breathed deeply of the liberal air at Macalester, with its students and ideas from all over the world. Things must have seemed full of promise—the sort that would have been relatively new to young African Americans in those days. It must have seemed like almost anything was possible, and before long, Jones was deejaying parties, playing softball, and making friends.

“He was very popular,” remembers his wife, Margaret, who was a Macalester student from Thailand. “I remember seeing him on campus. We stayed away from his table in the cafeteria because he was with this group of rowdy American boys who were always eyeing girls. We tried not to walk past them, because we didn’t know if they were talking about us in a good way or a bad way!”

In fact, Jones was interested in her. He asked Margaret to dance at a party but was puzzled when she avoided his eyes the whole time. She claims she was shy. But when Jones became friends with her older sister, she could no longer avoid him. “I went to visit her at the dorm,” Margaret recalls, “and there he was. I was forced to say hello. Call that fate, call that karma.”

The two started going out. Early on, they almost broke up when Jones decided A Clockwork Orange would make a good date movie. But they didn’t, and after he graduated, in 1980, they were married. On Valentine’s Day.

Anyone who knows Jones will tell you he loves movies. At meetings, he shows movie clips to illustrate his points. Sometimes he attaches audio files containing funny movie dialogue to his e-mails. When we sat down for our interview, he seemed a little suspicious and said, “How do I know this isn’t like The Usual Suspects, and you’re Keyser Söze?”

“A couple months ago, I was going through a tense management situation with people,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Andy Dunne, who has known Jones since the early ’90s. “We were fighting with an agency, and I was backing another assistant U.S. attorney. And Todd kept saying, ‘You gotta separate yourself from your troops. You’re a manager.’ He goes, ‘Here, I want you to take a movie home,’ and gives me Twelve O’Clock High, this black-and-white movie. I said, ‘Are you kidding?’”

Dutifully, Dunne took the film home, popped it in, and sat back. He watched as Gregory Peck, who plays a harsh squadron commander, tries to whip his troops into a disciplined group. But he becomes so enmeshed in the effort, it ultimately skews his vision. He eventually goes insane.

“I watched it,” Dunne recalls, “and I went, ‘My God, does he think I’m crazy and I need to be put on the beach for a while?’ But no, actually, it was very well-received advice. And no, I didn’t go crazy.”

Jones loves a good plot, good stories, and one of the things he learned in the courtroom years ago is that he loves telling them. “I like trial-lawyering, because it’s like living your own movie,” Jones says. “You’ve got an audience, and each case is its own story, and you get to be the producer and director in the courtroom, with the drama of a courtroom trial. There’s a story line. It’s got a beginning, middle, and an end, and I like telling stories. I’m not very chatty. I’m not usually very talkative with someone I don’t know. But I can go into a courtroom and talk to a box full of strangers about the story.”

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