GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 26, 2012

Fish report release unlikely before elections

By Richard Gaines Staff Writer
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — The Obama administration, through its Commerce Department and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has declined to respond to inquiries as to whether it would release before the Nov. 6 election a special investigator’s set of case studies into allegations of abuse and excesses against American fishermen by federal law enforcers still insulated and protected by top Commerce and NOAA officials.

Numerous telephone and email questions over the past month to the acting commerce secretary, Rebecca Blank, General Counsel Cameron Kerry, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and her chief counsel, Lois Schiffer, have been ignored.

The report by special judicial master Charles B. Swartwood III was completed and submitted in March.

In May 2011, the first report from the same special judicial investigator, Charles B. Swartwood III – hired by then-Commerce Secertary Gary Locke to look into alleged abuse of law enforcement authority victimizing fishermen — was released with redactions within a month of its submission.

The first Swartwood report validated the majority of detailed allegations in the highest profile case — including an illegal entry by NOAA agents and the submission to a judge of false information to get a search warrant to the now defunct Gloucester Seafood Display Auction. It also concluded another major case against a New Bedford scalloper, now out of business, was motivated by “money.”

The Commerce Department inspector general, Todd Zinser, had previously uncovered schemes to inflate an asset forfeiture fund with excessive fines used to outfit the Office of Law Enforcement with more vehicles than there were agents, and to finance travel to exotic locales for conventions unrelated to cases, making the expenditures a violation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Locke, now the ambassador to China, issued a public apology and reparations of more than $650,000 to 11 of the victims of the most egregious excesses, but Lubchenco and Schiffer decided against firing or punishing any of the perpetrators, including the longtime director of law enforcement, Dale Jones. A former small city Maryland police chief, Jones was made a fisheries analyst and continues to draw nearly all of his $155,000 salary.

Others implicated in the abuses of fishermen — all agents and lawyers in the Gloucester-based Northeast Division office, which is responsible for the federal waters from Maine through North Carolina — were given new assignments.

More recently, a months-long, bipartisan outcry from the congressional delegation — with the exception of Sen. John Kerry, whose brother is general counsel for the Commerce Department — for the release of the second Swartwood report has been ineffective.

Sen. Scott Brown and his opponent, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, also each issued new statements to the Times this week urging the release of the report.

Brown has evolved in his three years in the Senate into a fierce critic of NOAA fisheries policy generally and especially law enforcement. Evincing a penchant for bipartisanship, he convinced his colleague, Democratic Sen. Tom Carper, to bring the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management that he chairs to hold a field hearing in Boston. The Carper subcommittee gave Brown the stage — at Boston’s Faneuil Hall — to ask Lubchenco’s top fisheries assistant, “What does it take to get fired at NOAA?”

“This report has been done for months and the delay is inexcusable,” Brown said Thursday in an email to the Times. “I have repeatedly asked for this report to be released and will continue to do so.”

“The Department of Commerce should immediately release Special Master Swartwood’s final report,” Warren said in an email or her own. “Fishermen who were intimidated, abused, and harmed by NOAA law enforcement need to be cleared, and they should receive the compensation they are due. The public also has a right to this important information, so appropriate changes can be made to ensure that there will be no further unfair enforcement practices.”

In an email, Congressman John Tierney said, “It is outrageous that repeated requests made by me and my colleagues for release of the most recent report by the Special Master have fallen on deaf ears.”

“As I reiterated in my last letter to Acting Secretary Blank, fishermen and the community have waited long enough for answers,” said Tierney, who has joined with Brown and Congressman Barney Frank, as well as North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jones, in calling for Lubchenco’s dismissal. Tierney represents Cape Ann; Frank’s district includes New Bedford, Jones the Outer Banks of North Carolina

Within the delegation, Kerry has maintained cordial diplomatic relations with Lubchenco. His press office issued a statement at the start of the month asserting the importance of getting Swartwood II released “at the earliest possible date.” But his spokeswoman Jodi Seth addded that “it is just as important that it be comprehensive. Sen. Kerry has been assured that the administration has been working hard to meet both those standards.”

The last government update to the Times was issued in the last week of September. It described Black as gathering “more information regarding issued identified” in the 554 page report covering 66 case studies.”

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.