Congressman John Tierney Wednesday called for a congressional investigation into the status of a notorious luxury cabin boat and the personnel in NOAA's Seattle office who acquired and misused the $300,000 law enforcement asset for joy rides and other "misconduct" documented by the Commerce Department inspector general.
Tierney urged the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to step in after Commerce Secretary John Bryson failed to respond to a series of questions in a letter from the congressman.
It built on findings by the office of IG Todd Zinser that the Seattle office of law enforcement in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had manipulated the procurement process to acquire the boat, replete with flat screen TV and bar, which was used to tool around Puget Sound.
The abuse of the boat blew out one of the three outboard motors, leaving it helpless in a busy shipping lane on one occasion, ccording to the IG's report which was obtained by Tierney and Sen. Scott Brown under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act last month.
The heavily redacted report, however, made it impossible to identify who was implicated in the questionable acquisition and use of the craft.
Tierney wrote to the committee's chairman, Republican Darrell Issa of California, and the ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, to urge an investigation after getting no response from Bryson to a request for a detailed report on a variety of details, including whether anyone involved in the episode in Seattle or NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., had been held accountable.
"As of this writing, the Department of Commerce has neither responded to my letter nor extended the courtesy of letting me know when a response might be expected," Tierney wrote to Issa and Cummings. "This inattention to such a serious matter is unfortunate, yet it seems to be reflective of the lack of accountability on these issues that has been present for far too long."
Issa has been a partisan and investigative activist as committee chairman, while Cummings has a record of skepticism about the fairness of the U.S. Coast Guard administrative law judge system which lost its contract to adjudicate NOAA law enforcement cases against fishermen after revelations of abuse of authority by an IG's report in 2010.
It was a July 2010 report on NOAA law enforcement misuse of the Asset Forfeiture Fund, made up of fines, that first brought to light the waste of fishermen's penalties on the purchase of the 35-foot Boston Whaler,. But the illustration of waste did not identify the regional office involved, nor did it include details about how the boat was misused.
At a budget hearing Wednesday before the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco was asked about the boat scandal in Seattle, but except for describing herself as "appalled" to learn about the episode, she provided no details.
Lubchenco reiterated information issued in a NOAA press release last month that the boat had been "surplussed," and that the incident had sparked improved vessel acquisition policy and retraining. But, as she has done in multiple congressional hearings starting in Gloucester's City Hall March 2010, Lubchenco cited "the Privacy Act" as a bar to informing Congress about any personnel punishment.
She described herself as frustrated by the impediment to providing a public report, while emphasizing a "top-to-bottom" overhaul of policy and personnel — though key figures have been given new jobs.
Lubchenco's refusal to give an accounting of any disciplining of personnel for the coast-to-coast scandal in the Office of Law Enforcement has produced bipartisan, bicameral frustration, including the rhetorical question by Sen. Brown, "What does it take to get fired at NOAA?"
The inspector general's office does not have authority to investigate the administrative law judge system employed by NOAA, since it exists within the Coast Guard which is division of the Department of Homeland Security.
The Commerce Department has moved to transfer future court cases to a different system, and the relationship has become the intense object of renewed frustration.
The chief justice of the Coast Guard judicial system pressured a special judicial master reviewing cases spewing from the original law enforcement scandal to renounce a finding in an earlier report of at least the appearance of a conflict of interest by one judge and the general consensus that justice could not be obtained by fishermen who chose to go to trial rather than pay fines as demanded.
The incident was documented in notes taken at the meeting, released under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and reported in the Times Wednesday.
Tierney, Brown and Rep, Barney Frank expressed outrage at the effort to get the judicial master to alter his findings from last April, and promised to send the FOIAed material to Zinser.
Zinser's redacted report on the Seattle boat incident noted that the procurement process was "wired from the start."
"The above-cited report outlines misconduct that warrants its own congressional investigation," Tierney wrote to Issa and Cummings. "However, I believe what makes it particularly concerning and worthy of our committee's attention is that, according to a recent Department of Commerce office of inspector general audit, NOAA still lacks appropriate controls over the Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF) nearly two years after serious problems ... were identified .....
"This means that Congress has no guarantee that the inappropriate use of the (asset Forfeiture Fnud) to purchase a $300,000 luxury vessel or the inappropriate reimbursements of thousands of dollars from the AFF detailed in the report, among other things, were isolated cases."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.