, Gloucester, MA

February 5, 2013

Editorial: Ex-AG's report, hardly independent, needs further review

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — Leaders of Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund may have thought that commissioning an internal “investigation” by former state Attorney General L. Scott Harshbarger would be seen as a clearing, independent probe into what had been a growing number of questions alleging “conflicts of interest” in the handling of permits and funding.

And clearing the group’s name is important, given that a handful of fishermen have raised questions centering on one of its principals, Vito Giacalone, who has vested interests in the related Northeast Seafood Coalition, in his own commercial fishing, and the operation of a new auction on his waterfront property.

But it was clear from the start that the Preservation Fund, which paid for Harshbarger’s services, essentially had the probe and the report right under its own thumb. And instead of answering questions, the report itself — released through selected public presentations last week, yet still protected under attorney-client privilege, as its own pages note — has unfortunately raised new ones.

Given that, it would be best for all at this point if the Fund submitted Harshbarger’s findings and report to the current attorney generals’ office of Martha Coakley to seek a fresh pair of eyes not under the control of the very program that’s being “investigated.” And while the AG’s office doesn’t always offer advisory opinions for private, nonprofit groups like the Fund and the Seafood Coalition, it should recognize that perceived conflicts of interest — questions Harshbarger conceded were “legitimate” — dealing with commercial fishing permits is indeed a public issue and deserves both scrutiny and accountability.

At its core, the message of the Harshbarger report is legitimate, too. The Preservation Fund has indeed done a lot for Gloucester and Cape Ann fishermen, and Giacalone was, to his credit, among the first to recognize the need to work with NOAA officials and develop cooperatiges, or “sectors,” to deal with what has proved to be a job-killing catch share system.

Yet, in addressing some of the specific concerns raised by fishermen, Harshbarger first notes that he found no evidence that Giacalone had offered to help fishermen who shifted their landings from the then-Gloucester Seafood Display Auction over to the Buyers And Sellers Exchange (BASE) auction run by Giacalone’s sons for New Bedford BASE operators Richie and Raymond Canastra on property Giacalone owns. Yet, in a footnote, Harshbarger confirms that the Canastras offered a fishermen a $100,000 loan with the jnderstanding he would do precisely that — a case that the ex-AG admits was “a close call” toward confirming the allegation.

And while the Harshbarger report issues a troubling finding claiming that the allegations of conflicts were essentially generated by “a small number of individuals who have knowingly spread incorrect and inaccurate information about the Fund,” prominent Gloucester fishing attorney Paul Muniz, cited as one of the Fund’s chief questioners, says he has since spoken to Harshbarger, and the ex-AG agreed to conduct “a further review.”

On one page, the report cites a disbarred lawyer and a fisherman whose sector benefitted from Giacalone’s quota distribution as character references; on another, it depicts a key letter from lawmakers Ann-Margaret Ferrante and Bruce Tarr as a piece simply meant to “cover” themselves — charges they adamantly disputed last week. And so it goes.

But in the end, one thing is clear: Harsbarger’s supposedly independent report instead comes across as finding, or trying to find, exactly what the hiring party would want to be found.

That’s not good enough, and it shouldn’t be good enough for our lawmakers or the Attorney General’s office, either. Here’s hoping they take on the Harshbarger findings and full, 48-page report for further review.