U.S. Sen. Scott Brown has formally urged President Obama to fire NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and instruct the Justice Department begin "an outside review" of scandals at her agency.
In a letter to the president dated last Friday, Brown accused Lubchenco of excessively protecting those "who should be facing serious discipline."
The White House did not respond Wednesday to Times telephone and emailed requests for a response.
Lubchenco has repeatedly cited the Privacy Act as a bar to giving a public account of any action taken against agency personnel for violating the rights of fishermen in a still unfolding story of the law enforcement system run amok.
But she did authorize individual, confidential briefings for Brown and Sen. John Kerry, who had complained separately and together about NOAA's refusal to divulge how the misconduct, documented by the Commerce Department inspector general and a special judicial master, has been handled by the agency.
Based on his briefing last November, Brown wrote to the president that "not a single person has been fired or seriously disciplined for ... serious misconduct."
After his briefing in October, Kerry in an email to the Times called the situation "mind-boggling" to members of Congress who are allowed greater discretion in hiring and firing than the Commerce Department, the parent department of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Lubchenco has nurtured a different conclusion in testimony before a number of Senate committees, implying that punishment has been meted out, but that the Privacy Act bars her from making public.
"I would love more than anything to be able to talk about some the things we have done but it's simply not possible," Lubchenco said in an exchange with Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire during a Senate Commerce Committee budget hearing on March 7. "But I can tell you that this is an area that we take very, very seriously and we have gone to extraordinary lengths to make things right."
Brown's letter to the president disputes that notion, and cited as more responsible the reaction of the leadership of the U.S. General Services Administration to the recent report by its inspector general of a wild spending spree on a Las Vegas party by senior officials. Two were fired and identified; four managers were identified and suspended.
"She (Lubchenco) has gone beyond all legal requirements in her protection of those who should be facing serious discipline," Brown wrote.
As an example, Brown recalled the dishonesty of NOAA agents when questioned by the Commerce Department inspector general's office investigating how the Seattle office came to acquire a $300,000 luxury "undercover" pleasure craft that was not needed for official business, but was used for parties and "joy rides."
He also noted how NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement, together with the agency's litigating attorneys, contrived and exaggerated cases based on often on technical violations to amass a multi-million dollar fund of fines which was then used for improper purposes, according to the Inspector General's findings.
Characterized by Brown as "shameful," those included purchase of the party boat, a fleet of vehicles more numerous than the 200 agents at NOAA and foreign travel to exotic locations charged improperly to the Asset Forfeiture Fund.
The "most disdainful" incident of the NOAA corruption story," Brown told the president, involved a mass document shredding in late 2009, authorized by then-NOAA Law Enforcement Director Dale Jones, who eliminated files while investigators from the office of Inspector General Todd Zinser were gathering evidence that spurred multiple reports issues starting in January 2010.
The Privacy Act of 1974 was written to insulate government employees from the disclosure of personal information, but contains a series of exceptions including requests by law enforcement agencies, congressional committees and subcommittees and the General Accounting Office. But the imperatives of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act generally trump the protections of the Privacy Act.
NOAA replaced Jones as head of law enforcement, but shifted him into a position as fisheries analyst at virtually the same salary — more than $150,000 — and pension benefits.
Similar transfers also removed the entire team of litigators from the Northeast division office here in Gloucester.
The agent-in-charge of the Northeast division, Andrew Cohen, resigned in September 2010 soon after he was questioned by the inspector general's staff.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.