Whether he was inspiring kudos or criticism, during his tenure as Minnesota's U.S. attorney, David Lillehaug was a high-profile guy. Newsweek recently praised him for reaching out to African Americans in St. Paul to bust a gang-inspired mass murder, a nice rebound from the national criticism that followed a grandstanding prosecution of Malcolm X's dysfunctional daughter Qubilah Shabazz, enticed into a plot to murder Louis Farrakhan by a well-paid federal informant with drug charges hanging over his head. But when Lillehaug resigned last Friday, he was replaced by an enigma: B. Todd Jones, a man unknown to many Twin Cities legal and political insiders.
Technically, the 41-year-old Jones, who has served for the past 13 months as Lillehaug's deputy, is U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno's interim appointee. "I have a 120-day appointment courtesy of Janet Reno," says Jones. "I am sensitive to prerogatives of the senator and president. This is a political appointment, and ultimately it may or may not be me."
The senator, in this case, is Paul Wellstone; U.S. attorneys are customarily nominated by the U.S. senator of the same party as the sitting president. Publicly, Wellstone's spokespeople are as cautious as Jones, saying only that their office is taking applications and the senator won't reveal his choice for the state's top federal law enforcement official until all interviews are completed. But one doesn't have to talk to many Wellstone insiders to get the impression that what appears to be a selection process is actually a mere formality; no one mentions any name but Jones's.
Lillehaug, who is widely thought to be on the verge of entering the race for state attorney general, acknowledges that he has recommended Jones as his permanent successor. And while Sam Kaplan, the Minneapolis business lawyer who chaired the Wellstone committee that selected Lillehaug in 1993, is loath to declare Jones the winner before the senator does, he can barely contain his own glee: "Speaking personally, [Jones] would be a simply wonderful choice, the first black American to be U.S. attorney in this area." As for Wellstone, Kaplan adds tellingly, "Paul thinks very, very highly of Todd Jones, and sings his praises."
Jones's chances to head an office that has taken on greater public prominence with aggressive federal gangbusting and drug-policing initiatives are greatly aided by the present political climate. Bill Clinton has the final say on any U.S. attorney appointee, but although Wellstone's nascent challenge to Al Gore for the 2000 presidential nomination might motivate the White House to give added scrutiny to his choice, it's difficult to imagine that the Clinton administration, which has been so rhetorically committed to racial healing, would nix the selection of the first black U.S. attorney in Minnesota history.
Furthermore, Jones is poised for quick confirmation. He has twice passed FBI background checks in previous stints with the U.S. attorney's office, and his smooth promotion to deputy indicates there are no serious reservations within Reno's Justice Department; Republicans, meanwhile, will find little partisan history on Jones's résumé to inflame them.
That absence of politics reflects Jones's uniqueness at least as much as does his race. Longtime legal vets, including Lillehaug's predecessor Tom Heffelfinger (who hired Jones as an assistant U.S. attorney, the basic prosecutorial grade, in 1991) say they cannot recall a U.S. attorney who didn't work for his political patron, at least as far back as now-retired U.S. District Court Judge Miles Lord, a Hubert Humphrey crony selected in 1961. (More recently, Lillehaug prepped Wellstone for his first senatorial debates in 1990, and Heffelfinger toiled for former Sen. Dave Durenberger.)
Most Wellstone campaign veterans, in fact, have never met Jones. "I would've assumed Todd was a Democrat when I hired him, but I didn't know that," says Heffelfinger. "[Partisanship] is not an important or even a driving factor for him."
Which is not to imply that Jones, who interrupted his tenure in the U.S. attorney's office for a three-year stint in private practice, is clueless about office politics. "You underestimate Todd if you don't think he has connections," Heffelfinger cautions. "Word on the street is that Todd has quietly, carefully nurtured a network of people who have connections to Wellstone. He is a good lawyer, and he's made friends throughout the legal community."
In part because he is an experienced prosecutor rather than a seasoned pol, it's difficult to find a Jones critic within the legal community. "If he got the top job, I would stand up and applaud," says St. Paul criminal defense attorney Ron Rosenbaum, who has opposed Jones in federal court and is also the brother of Bush-era Minnesota U.S. Attorney and current U.S. District Court Judge James M. Rosenbaum.
Indeed, Ron Rosenbaum and others believe that some of David Lillehaug's most famous stumbles can be blamed on his lack of experience as a criminal prosecutor. While three-quarters of Minnesota's 40 federal prosecutors handle criminal work, before becoming U.S. attorney, Lillehaug was a civil attorney who specialized in construction and employment law. His failures while in office include the unsuccessful 1996 fraud prosecution of University of Minnesota heart surgeon John Najarian, who was acquitted by a jury after a judge had thrown out the lion's share of Lillehaug's case against him; and the Qubilah Shabazz debacle of the previous year, which featured the FBI's controversial use of a paid informant to entice the daughter of the late Malcolm X to hire him to assassinate Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. (Shabazz did not even go to trial.)