Questioning its "accountability and integrity," U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has launched an effort to break through a wall of silence erected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration surrounding the abuses of its authority while overseeing the nation's fishing industry.
Collins has requested a meeting at the staff level between the administration and Senate and House Appropriations and Oversight committees in an effort to crack the silence she said has been erected via the misuse of the Privacy Act.
Among the overriding questions posed by Collins, a Maine Republican, in her March 22 letter to Commerce Secretary John Bryson was abuse of the Asset Forfeiture Fund, made up of fines paid by fishermen, and an apparent lack of consequences for abuses by NOAA law enforcers identified by the Commerce Department inspector general's office in multiple reports beginning January 2010 through late last year.
These reports led to a public apology by Bryson's predecessor Gary Locke (now ambassador to China), and more than $600,000 in reparations to eight victims of the most egregious miscarriages of justice. But NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco transferred the longtime director of law enforcement Dale J. Jones Jr. and the team of agents and litigators based in Gloucester at the headquarters of the Northeast Division of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, which was the epicenter of the abuses of authority and is responsible for policing federal waters to the 200-mile limit from the Canadian border through the Carolinas.
Collins' letter referred at length to the saga of a $300,000 luxury, undercover boat acquired, according to reports from the office of Inspector General Todd Zinser, via a manipulated procurement process with Jones' approval.
The boat was misused for pleasure cruises and abused on pleasure cruises, the IG's office concluded in a detailed examination of the boat's history, released via the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Quoting from the July 2011 report, Collins noted that the law enforcement senior manager who purchased the boat not only "violated agency policy and ethical standards," but misled the Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigators by making assertions that "lack(ed) validity and candor" and were "not true."
Although Lubchenco testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee on March 7 that she "took immediate (disciplinary) action," Collins wrote to Bryson that NOAA has provided "no documentary evidence that disciplinary action has actually taken place despite requests from the OIG and Congress."
Collins is a the ranking Republican member of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, whose Federal Financial Management Subcommittee held an field hearing in Boston last June on the Asset Forfeiture Fund and other spending by NOAA.
U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, chaired the hearing that was organized by U.S. Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, the ranking Republican.
Collins said Carper and Brown, among "several of my colleagues, ... have experienced considerable difficulties getting answers from NOAA regarding the management of the Asset Forfeiture Fund, the integrity and accountability of those managing the fund, the disposition of the $300,000 luxury boat and what, if any disciplinary actions have been taken against employees found culpable in the misuse of the fund."
Collins made a point of questioning the chronic use of the Privacy Act by NOAA to insulate itself against congressional inquiries. "NOAA officials' use of the Privacy Act as a sword to protect its reputation rather than as a shield, as Congress intended, to protect the privacy rights of private citizens, is unacceptable," she wrote.
Bryson's office had no immediate response.
Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464 or firstname.lastname@example.org.