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March 18, 2010

NOAA chief eyes 'reforms' in policing

Lubchenco never mentions chief, cites legal 'team'

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration yesterday announced a suite of detailed reforms with an eye toward "moving toward an effective enforcement program" for federal fisheries, the agency's chief administrator said.

The agency has been chipping away at longtime patterns of dissonant behavior since January, when a 28-page inspector general's report outlining misconduct, lack of leadership and provocative actions against fishermen and fish brokers dropped with a thud into the lap of NOAA chief administrator Jane Lubchenco.

Yesterday, Lubchenco made no mention of Dale Jones, whose 11-year record heading NOAA law enforcement has become a major distraction to Lubchenco and a bar to rapprochement with a fishing community whose complaints have been corroborated through Inspector General Todd Zinser's investigation and preliminary report.

She did, however, announce a commitment to healing scars from wounds and slights to the fishing industry over many years by agents cited by the inspector general for confusing their "criminal" orientation with the technical and reporting violations of fishermen and dealers.

Many fishermen were pushed out of business by heavy fines for minor violations.

Another point of emphasis by Lubchenco and her new law enforcement leadership team was the need to standardize policies and reviews of penalty proposals and prosecutions, and shifting the presumption in administrative trials for the accused from guilt to innocence.

Under one reform published for comment yesterday in the Federal Register, judges will no longer be required to state "good reasons" for departing from the fines or penalties proposed by NOAA law enforcers.

The law enforcement system — including its penalties — was found to be ad hoc and capricious by Commerce Department IG Zinser in January.

He sent teams across the country last year on a six-month investigation that began in and around Gloucester after a barrage of pleas that grew into a powerful, bipartisan, congressional coalition citing abusive treatment of fishermen at the hands of federal fishery law enforcement agents.

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