By Richard Gaines
U.S. Sen. Scott Brown Wednesday faulted NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco for overseeing an agency without accountability.
In a letter to Commerce Secretary John Bryson, Brown asked the Commerce chief to review and report on two new instances of unexplained actions — the brief solicitation for a "magician" to preside at a leadership conference, and a mass meeting of agency lawyers at a hotel in Philadelphia, a two hour ride from NOAA's Silver Spring, Md., headquarters.
"NOAA's continued disregard for being efficient and effective stewards of taxpayer dollars illustrates the rampant culture of waste at this agency, which has been fostered by Administrator Lubchenco's failure to punish obvious misconduct," Brown wrote. "NOAA's decision to seek an outside magician is just another troubling example.
"It has already been documented that Administrator Lubchenco previously retained an employee who made 80 percent of the agency's law enforcement files disappear in a 'shredding party' during an Inspector General investigation. This is the same well-paid NOAA employee who supported the purchase of a $300,000 luxury fishing boat, despite warnings from a NOAA procurement lawyer."
Brown was referring to a published solicitation for a speaker for a day at a leadership conference scheduled for June. The specifications for the speaker included mastery of magic as applied to inspire. The request for applications for the assignment was taken down after press inquiries.
The "shredding party" refers to actions authorized by the then director of law enforcement, Dale Jones, in November 2010, while the Commerce Department inspector general's teams were gathering evidence of abuse of the Asset Forfeiture Fund and making targets of fishing industry representatives. IG Todd Zinser reported the shredding event during sworn testimony Congress in March 2010.
Jones was reassigned to be a fisheries analyst, but remains on the NOAA payroll at a salary of more than $150,000.
The Inspector General reported that the Seattle NOAA office had gotten top-level sign-off in 2008 when Jones was still heading the Office of Law Enforcement for a $300,000 undercover cabin boat that was used as a party boat.
Brown and Congressman John Tierney each extracted the Inspector General's report on the boat in March using the Freedom of Information Act, and immediately provided the report to the press.
Brown and Tierney, who represents Cape Ann, have also repeatedly urged President Obama to replace Lubchenco.
NOAA has confirmed to the Times that the Office of General Counsel Lois Schiffer held the four-day conference in Philadelphia's Crowne Plaza Hotel for 135 lawyers and support staff, but has failed to release a copy of the agenda or a budget for the conference.
"NOAA's Office of General Counsel holds training sessions approximately every two years to provide essential, substantive and skills-based training to staff to increase understanding of substantive law and improve their work together in support of NOAA operations," said NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen. "All training sessions are planned with cost-effectiveness in mind, and NOAA strives to realize savings in overall travel and accommodation costs."
Brown, however, isn't looking at agency "savings."
"Wasteful NOAA conferences are also nothing new, ranging from the $109,000 trip to Norway, trips to Kuala Lumpur and the other roughly 40 international trips taken by NOAA officials, paid for on the backs of fishermen through the infamous Asset Forfeiture Fund," Brown wrote to Bryson. "I remain concerned about upcoming international travel by NOAA personnel to conferences that have produced little value for American fishermen in the past.
"With our budget deficit once again topping a trillion dollars," he wrote, "I ask that you provide my office with written justification for each of these upcoming trips."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.