Federal Agent

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

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.”


Neither Margaret nor any of his hippie friends from Macalester quite understood when Jones started talking about going into the military. But he felt drawn to it with a force that was hard even for him to understand. Maybe it was because he had spent his first five years of childhood on bases in the southern United States while his dad served in the Air Force. Maybe it had something to do with his time in Catholic school, eight years of uniforms and discipline. Maybe it had to do with the tiny toy soldiers he used to spend hours painting. Or maybe it was just something that had run in his family since his great-great-grandfather served in the Ohio Colored Infantry during the Civil War.

Whatever it was, Jones began thinking about joining the military in college. But Margaret wasn’t a fan of that idea, so he applied for—and got—a scholarship to the University of Minnesota Law School. “Law school sucked,” Jones says. “Anyone who tells you they loved law school is lying.” Still, he immersed himself in the coursework, escaping into the world of celluloid on weekends, sometimes taking in double features at the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown.

Jones’s interest in military service wouldn’t go away, however—a fact that was not lost on Margaret. “I could tell something was up,” she says, “because he wasn’t really into his law books. There were military-history books all over our apartment. Then, between the second and third year of law school, he came home and told me he had joined the Marines. His love is the military. It’s kind of strange.”

After Jones finished law school and passed the bar exam, he and Margaret set off to Virginia for training and then, in 1984, to Camp Pendleton, the 200-square-mile Marine Corps base on the southern California coast. While in the Marines, Jones served first as weapons platoon commander, then as a rifle company commander, and finally as a judge advocate, where he got his first real taste for the courtroom.
“I was a grunt,” he says. “I deployed overseas—Korea, Okinawa, the Philippines, the whole shebang.” Margaret remained at Camp Pendleton, taking care of the couple’s growing family. Their first child, a son, was born in 1985, followed by another boy the next year.

Jones loved life in the military, but it wasn’t easy being apart from his family. And when his third child, a daughter, arrived in 1989, he knew he had to decide how much he really loved it. He talked to higher-ups. He looked down the career-officer road. Then he looked back at his family. He thought of all the time he’d already spent away from them. He thought about how, whenever he returned from deployment, he found them a little older, a little more grown-up.

“You cannot be a career military man and have a normal family life,” he reflects. “You just can’t. It’s just not conducive to family life.”
In 1989, Jones resigned from active duty.

Jones and his family came back to Minnesota. When they got here, he started knocking on doors, calling old friends, reestablishing old connections. It didn’t take him long to find a job, but soon his mind was wondering back to his senior year of college, when he’d served as an intern in Senator Hubert Humphrey’s office in the months before Humphrey died. That was where he saw how government could be a force for change. Bob Gagne, who’s now a crisis manager at Exponent PR, was a Humphrey intern with him. “I remember being in places,” says Gagne, “looking at each other, thinking, ‘Can you believe how lucky we are to be seeing this? Can you believe we just witnessed this discussion?’ We really got a deep understanding of politics, and the nuance of politics, and how to press the levers of power appropriately—not too forcefully. But we saw the power this man had.”

“It was one of the pivotal events in my life,” Jones says of his time in Humphrey’s Minnesota office. “I got a taste for politics, for service, for the functioning of the federal government.”

Not long after returning to Minnesota, Jones was called back to the Marines for the first Gulf War. Six months after that, a civilian once more, he landed a position working for U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger. He took on tough cases against crack dealers, local motorcycle gangs, money launderers, and others.

As an assistant U.S. attorney, Jones took on the people who were turning mid-1990s Minneapolis into Murderapolis.  He recalls the one young crack dealer he put away, who wouldn’t talk to save his life.  Jones couldn’t understand why, until he met the mother in the courtroom.  Jones told her he wouldn’t have gone away for so long if he just would have talked.

“She looked me dead in the eye,” Jones recalls, “and said, ‘If he would have talked to you, they would have burned my house down and killed me.’”

That’s how high the stakes were.

“He was a natural prosecutor,” says Heffelfinger. “I was very impressed with him before I hired him, but I was impressed with his work as an assistant U.S. attorney from the very beginning.”

By 1994, Jones had returned to private practice, doing corporate criminal defense work and trying to make ends meet for his family (which now included four kids, and a fifth coming soon). Then he got a call from U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug, who asked Jones to be his first assistant, or the No. 2 person in the office. Jones, of course, said yes. And when Lillehaug stepped down in 1998 to run for state attorney general, he recommended Jones to fill his post.

Paul Wellstone, who was Minnesota’s senior senator at the time, met Jones, was impressed, and sent his name through for nomination by President Bill Clinton.  By all accounts Jones’s staff was particularly effective at prosecuting gang members, and Jones tried to pull community organizations, corporations, and local authorities together in his efforts to fight crime in the Twin Cities.

“I was working over in Minneapolis with the mayor, Sharon Sayles Belton,” recalls Fred Gates, who is now a project specialist in Representative Betty McCollum’s office, but who first met Jones while he was working with Humphrey. “Todd sort of took everyone by surprise because he started visiting with county and city law enforcement people, and he put together a law enforcement group that included federal, state, and local law enforcement to work on cases together.”

By the time he stepped down, in 2001, after George W. Bush’s inauguration, Jones had made some good friends—everyone from
Janet Reno, to whom Jones reported as chair of the influential Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, to a new Hennepin County Attorney named Amy Klobuchar, to the man who President Barack Obama would later make his attorney general, Eric Holder.

“One of Todd’s adages is that all business is personal,” says Bob Small, Jones’s former first assistant and now a Hennepin County judge. “Once you get those personal connections made and people trust and respect you, the rest is a whole lot easier.”

Jones also believed that it was important to hire the right people for the job, and among the hires from his first stint in office was a young woman named Rachel Paulose. “She was a young attorney in the [Department of Justice] honors program—highly credentialed, very successful in the academic environment,” he says. Born in India and raised in Ohio, Paulose had moved to Minnesota at age 17 to attend the University of Minnesota. After graduating, she had earned a law degree at Yale and clerked in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. “She was very talented,” says Jones. In 1999, he gave her a job as an assistant U.S. attorney in the civil division—a move that would significantly impact the stability and mood of the entire office seven years later.


Years passed. Jones left in 2001, replaced by Thomas Heffelfinger, a George W. Bush appointee, who had held the position from 1991 to 1993. To the surprise of many, however, Heffelfinger abruptly resigned in 2006 to take a private-sector job. He had a daughter going off to college, he said, and he needed to earn more to pay the tuition. But many believed he had been ousted—part of a purge by the Justice Department of U.S. attorneys who didn’t hew to the Bush administration’s agenda.

Heffelfinger’s successor was Rachel Paulose—at 33, the youngest individual to ever hold the position in Minnesota. And things went awry almost immediately, starting with Paulose’s swearing-in, an elaborate ceremony with a Marine color guard, a choir, and some 300 people present. (Some compared it to a “coronation.”) After that, things got worse. She quickly alienated her staff, was accused of myriad infractions such as leaving classified reports loose in her office, and retaliating against staff. The federal Office of the Special Counsel began an investigation. Several top staffers stepped down to protest her “dictatorial management style” and “lack of management experience,” according to one report. Then, defending herself, she played, as Eric Black wrote on Minnpost.com, “the race card, the gender card, the religion card, the age card, the ideology card, the Federalist Society card, and the Joe McCarthy card.”

Paulose’s appointment inevitably became linked to the controversial firings of several U.S. attorneys by Bush’s Justice Department, which eventually resulted in the August 2007 resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Paulose herself resigned at the end of 2007 and left the state.

As Jones, ever the movie buff, observed all this from afar, it must have felt like watching Ishtar, or Waterworld, or some terrible spectacle you can’t take your eyes off. At the time, he was comfortably ensconced at one of Minneapolis’s blue-chip law firms—Robins, Kaplan, Miller &
Ciresi—where, among other things, he successfully defended Kirby Puckett against sexual-assault charges. Asked to comment on the Paulose debacle and its impact of the office, Jones politely declines. All he’ll allow himself to say is “There have been distractions in the past.”

In 2009, following Barack Obama’s election, and a lengthy nomination and confirmation period, Jones assumed the post once more, a kind of stabilizing force. “I think the office is feeling strong and feeling good and comfortable about itself,” says former Judge James Rosenbaum. Others familiar with Jones’s work echo such sentiments, saying Jones has been the ideal choice to lead the office, turning the focus back to the work at hand, back to the law, back to fixing what needs to be fixed. “I know it sounds corny,” says Dunne, the assistant U.S. attorney, “but his goal really is to achieve justice in each case. And when that’s the goal the corner office has, it filters down.”

But others say Jones’s return hasn’t been completely rosy. Katherian Roe, the federal public defender for the District of Minnesota, worries that the office is still not operating as smoothly as it should be. “There’s less autonomy than the assistants have had historically,” she says. “They’re micromanaged much more now. There are many more layers of management, and that’s since Todd has become the U.S. attorney. Todd Jones I and Todd Jones II are very different.”

Jones, for his part, admits that there has been some of what he calls tightening up, but says that this it has been in response to complaints about assistants’ “lack of supervisory controls” and due to the legacy left by the Bush Administration. After all, these are different times, which call for different measures, even a different Jones, and there is much work to be done. Jones wants to shift focus back to Indian Country—the Red Lake and Bois Forte reservations, which are under federal jurisdiction but had been all but relegated to “other duties.” Now, for the first time in years, prosecutors are being hired to pursue crimes on the reservations.

Elsewhere, energy in the office is shifting away from low-level drug prosecution and toward things like investment fraud, terrorism, and all kinds of cybercrime—fraud, child pornography, and human trafficking. “All the good fraudsters, all the good criminals,” Jones says, “have migrated to the Internet. They’re hard to track. You can be anonymous. It’s like the Wild West.””¯

In a recent speech, Jones also signaled a moved toward prosecuting more companies that violate environmental laws, like the $4.6 million in fines FMC Corporation had to pay for turning its Fridley plant along the Mississippi into a toxic wasteland.

It remains to be seen whether Jones’s second stint of putting bad guys away will be a sequel along the lines of Magnum Force or The Empire Strikes Back. Since his return—and reappointment as chair of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee—there has been much off-the-record speculation about whether Jones is on his way to some place higher up. In fact, a March 2010 poll on the website Main Justice had Jones becoming the next deputy attorney general.

I ask Jones if he sees himself moving on, moving up, as so many people in his chair have done. He shakes his head. “No,” he says. Margaret isn’t interested in relocating, he claims, and neither is he. “We’re not going anyplace. We made that decision back in 1989. This is home.”

It’s a good ending, a satisfying plot with firm, perhaps even comforting conclusion. Maybe it’s the end of the Todd Jones series. Or maybe there’s another sequel in the works—who knows? Like any other audience pulled along by the story, we can only watch and wonder how it will all work out.