By Richard Gaines
State Attorney General Martha Coakley has sent a de facto Freedom of Information Act request to the federal government for documents she believes will shed light on the administrative response at the Department of Commerce and NOAA to law enforcement abuses against fishermen.
Coakley made a broad request for internal documents reflecting decisions made inside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration against disciplining law enforcement agents and litigators. whose improper actions over many years led to Cabinet-level apologies and reparations paid to 11 individuals and fishing businesses, including the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction. this past summer.
The apologies were issued last May while NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco was in Gloucester in an attempt to reset the relationship with the industry.
Coakley also asked for files and documents relating to the decision to reassign law enforcement personnel from the Northeast regional headquarters here in Gloucester.
She wrote that further restitution is appropriate for "lost business costs incurred due to overzealous suspensions."
"We also believe that further investigation should be conducted into the overall loss funds incurred by the fishing industry and communities caused by the culture of fear and 'paranoia' cited by the special master that may have impacted the production of fishermen individually and collectively," Coakley wrote.
The class of documents identified by Coakley in the letter she sent last week to acting Commerce Secretary Roberta M. Blank has been repeatedly sought by members of Congress and victims of the NOAA law enforcement system, but with few exceptions, NOAA has stonewalled the previous requests.
Last month, NOAA made a limited release of documents sought by Sen. Scott Brown last June during research by the Republican staff on a Senate subcommittee preparing for a field hearing in Boston, focused on the use of appropriated federal monies and the Asset Forfeiture Fund of fines assembled from penalties paid by the fishing industry.
Sen. John Kerry lent his support to Brown's effort at obtaining the release of the internal documents.
Kerry is empaneling a field hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee in Boston this morning. Brown is expected to join Kerry and Reps. John Tierney, Barney Frank and William Keating — members of the delegation with fishing ports in their districts — in questioning Lubchenco during the hearing.
Although then-Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Lubchenco apologized to the most harmed victims in the decade long exploitation of fishing industry members, other than transfers and resignations, no agent or litigator was fired or punished, according to Locke's prepared statement last May.
The scandal was exposed and documented by Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser.
"Serious questions remain about what disciplinary actions, if any, the (Commerce) Department, NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service took in response to these targeted and overzealous prosecutions," Coakley wrote.
"There has also been little detailed information forthcoming about how, or even if, the department plans to address the failures of managerial oversight identified in both the Inspector General's and Special Master's reports, and acknowledged by former Secretary Locke, going forward," she added,
The state attorney general wrote that "these issues are of particular concern to our office because state and federal officers share enforcement responsibility.
"Our concerns also are not new," Coakley noted. "In 2006, our office challenged the (previous regimen) Framework 42 regulations. During that process, we heard from numerous members of the fishing community about actions undertaken by NOAA and NMFS personnel in Massachusetts that were not only undermining regulatory efforts, but had devastated the faith and trust in the agencies by the communities in which they operated. We raised our concerns with the federal government; those concerns were confirmed by the Inspector General's and Special Master's reports."
Special Judicial Master Charles B. Swartwood III, hired by Locke before he resigned to become ambassador to China, continues to analyze dozens of cases that were not reviewed by the inspector general.
No date for a second report to the secretary and the public has been announced.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.