Along Comes Jones

Jana Freiband

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.)  

"In my opinion, an experienced and seasoned person would've never prosecuted cases like Qubilah Shabazz," Rosenbaum asserts. "It never should have been pumped up like it was, and it caused a tremendous amount of racial animosity in this community."

Perhaps it's coincidence, but Jones accepted the job as Lillehaug's chief deputy in April 1997--after Najarian, Shabazz, and the Suburban Seven bail case (in which high-level white drug distributors made bail even though many low-level black dealers usually can't)--and the U.S. attorney's office has largely avoided bad publicity ever since.

"In the world I come from, I respect guys who've been there," says Rosenbaum, who faced Jones in court five years ago. "I have a very clear recollection of Jones as a straight shooter. He was tough but sympathetic. Most [federal prosecutors] don't try to put one over on defense attorneys; there is mutual respect. It's very different from the world of civil law, where there is much more pettiness and anger."

Lillehaug says his likely successor is anything but impetuous. "He'll charge if necessary, but he's extremely diplomatic," says the newly jobless top prosecutor. "And his vision is wide."

Jones, who grew up in a middle-class household in Cincinnati, does boast a curriculum vitae with some breadth. To wit: He is undoubtedly one of the few post-Vietnam graduates of the ultraliberal Macalester College to have enlisted in the Marines. (He served a six-year stint with the Judge Advocate Division, the Marines' legal corps, after graduating from law school at the University of Minnesota.)

Jones laughs at the contradiction implied in a move from Macalester to the military. "It was less a Mac thing, and more a decision I made in law school. I was looking for an opportunity to get good trial experience," he says.

Still, says Andy Lugar, a former assistant U.S. attorney and close friend of Jones, "You don't have a lengthy conversation with Todd without talking about the military. He feels as though he learned a great deal about human nature."

Heffelfinger, who says he has recently spotted the U.S. attorney-to-be on TV in full-dress uniform collecting Toys for Tots, says military experience was just one reason he selected Jones in 1991 from a pool of 700 applicants. "There are a lot of military lawyers who apply with good records, but I was looking for someone more poised. He was the father of, like, 85 children--he was focused on his kids, his family, yet really wanted to participate in the community."

In truth, Jones's brood is smaller but still formidable--he and wife Margaret have five kids who range in age from 2 to 13. In 1994, owing in part to income pressure, he resigned from the U.S. attorney's office after being recruited as managing partner at the fledgling Minneapolis firm of Greene Espel, now a prominent name on the Twin Cities litigation landscape. Lugar, who followed Jones from the U.S. attorney's office to Greene Espel, says his friend's leadership abilities were instantly tapped. "We're talking about 14 lawyers in a room trying to decide an issue. Imagine how difficult could be," Lugar laughs. "Todd was more of a consensus builder than a partisan. He had a magical way of moving us along and reaching consensus. His absence was very noticeable."

Comments Lillehaug: "Most members of our staff really, really like him. He makes no distinctions based on rank."

Although Jones's departure for private practice came just one month after his own arrival in January 1994, Lillehaug says a bond had quickly formed. "As he walked out the door, he expressed regret we would not work together," he says. "We hit it off right away."

Three years later, Jones took what Lillehaug describes as "a substantial cut in salary" to return to the U.S. attorney's fold. "His decision had nothing to do with money," Lillehaug notes. "It had to do with commitment to public service, and that he felt called by me to be a leader in the office." In the 13 months since, adds Lillehaug, "knowing that my office was in good hands gave me the confidence to go do more things in the community."  

Whether he was motivated by altruism or political savvy, Lillehaug certainly has made some very public local forays during the past year. Along with numerous high-profile visits to the Phillips neighborhood, he garnered copious media attention for the work his office did in helping to solve the gang-inspired Coppage fire in St. Paul, which killed five children. But as the first black man to lead the U.S. attorney's office in a time when many in the public associate crime with a black male face, his likely successor will undoubtedly be subjected to tough scrutiny. Heffelfinger says Jones is ready for it.

"As an African-American male, Todd was put in a difficult position that I tried to be sensitive to and David tried to be sensitive to," Heffelfinger acknowledges. "Unfortunately, a lot of the men prosecuted by that office were African-American males. Todd was always willing to carry his share of burden for those things, but he also wanted to be more proactive than just putting people in jail. He wanted to find alternatives to incarceration, be more active in community alternatives."

Jones bluntly acknowledges race when critiquing recent changes toward mandatory sentencing, which rarely allow judges the discretion to consider a defendant's unique circumstances. "My perspective is, like a lot of African Americans, I struggle with the mandatory minimums and guideline ranges," he says. "I struggle to make sure each case gets the attention it deserves. Each case is different, and the minute we lose the ability to have an independent judgment, we'd better think about not prosecuting anyone."

Jones sits on the Phillips neighborhood's Weed and Seed board, helping to administer that federal initiative to concentrate law enforcement and social programs in poor neighborhoods. He says the concept is "really good," especially a program to allow neighborhoods to apply directly for federal seed money. He feels that areas such as Phillips need more cops, and responds carefully to questions regarding civil rights concerns that arise when cops target potential offenders. "It's always a balancing act in terms of the constitutional issues for aggressive law enforcement," he says. "We have to completely understand what our parameters are."

Still, to influential African-American critics of the local justice system, Jones remains a virtual unknown. Yusef Mgeni, who works with the legal establishment as head of the Urban Coalition, has never met him. "David [Lillehaug] was so out front of everything it was hard for anyone to keep up with him," Mgeni quips. "I think he tended to be a one-man band." When Jones's name is mentioned to Ron Edwards, the veteran court-watcher and media commentator, he isn't sure if Jones is black or white. "I know nothing about him per se, and I've known every U.S. attorney since 1960," says Edwards. "I've never seen him as a player."

For his part, Edwards predicts little change in the direction of the U.S. attorney's office. "I've learned that the U.S. attorney's office is governed by the policies and mandates of the Justice Department, and whoever the current [U.S.] attorney general is," he asserts. "Procedurally, they are governed by whatever Washington wants, and that hasn't changed."

Jones doesn't disagree. "I don't foresee any radical change," he says. "We'll still prosecute corporate criminals, and criminals on the street." As for the low profile he's maintained in the past, Jones counters, "I'm a trial lawyer, and if I have to be more out in a public way, well, I'm comfortable in front of a jury and this is just multiplying that. This is just taking it up to the next level--even if only for a summer."

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