In separate letters, U.S. Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown have expressed impatience at the delay by the U.S. Commerce Department in making public what is expected to be a second scathing set of case studies by a retired judge of federal fisheries law enforcement gone bad.
Kerry, whose brother Cameron Kerry, as general counsel for the department, has the lead role in approving the redacted version of the work of special judicial master Charles B. Swartwood III, wrote first to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco on July 23.
Three days later, last Thursday, Brown wrote to Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, asking for the report “as a member of Congress and under the Freedom of Information Act.”
Attorneys with clients that are among the 66 cases that Swartwood reviewed on the direction of former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, have said that Swartwood made his full report to the then Commerce Secretary John Bryson in March.
If true, Bryson, and his acting successor, Blank, have had the second report for four months -- three months longer than than it took Locke to review, redact and release the first set of findings more than a year ago.
“This Department thinks that it is accountable to no one,” said New Bedford attorney Pamela Lafreniere, who has more than a dozen clients whose cases are among those studied and reported on by Swartwood. “Why would anyone be surprised that they would withhold this report from the public?”
“It is imperative that the Department of Commerce release the final report of the Special Master in a timely manner. Fishermen who were unduly targeted and fined by NOAA’s (Office of Law Enforcement) should receive appropriate compensation and reprieve as soon as possible,” added Congressman John Tierney, whose district includes Cape Ann.
“It is disappointing – but not surprising – that we are again waiting on NOAA to release the second report under Special Investigator Charles B. Swartwood, III,” said Rep. William Keating, the Democrat whose district includes the ports of central Massachusetts and Cape Cod.
A spokesman for Rep. Barney Frank said the congressman also believes the report should be released “immediately.”
“It continues to be disappointing that the department is stuck in a pattern of delay and denial,” said Rep. Walter Jones, whose district includes coastal North Carolina. “This is all the more reason why administrator Lubchenco should resign.”
Frank and Tierney, both Democrats, and Brown and Jones, both Republicans, have all called for Lubchenco’s ouster, but their demands have fallen in deaf ears elsewhere on Capitol Hill or within the Obama administration.
The first Swartwood report became the basis of a Cabinet level apology and more than $650,000 in reparations distributed to the 11 most harmed victims -- businesses based in Gloucester and New Bedford.
Commerce Department spokeswoman Sarah Horowitz issued a statement to the Times Monday.
“The lengthy report includes numerous cases spanning more than a decade, so the review time for such a report is appreciably longer than for the prior report,” Horowitz wrote in an email. “Further, the resignation of Secretary Bryson required Acting Secretary Blank to review the report and get up to speed on the issues.”
Bryson was found unconscious behind the wheel of his car in in early June after a series of mishaps. He explained his behavior as resulting from a seizure, and although his system was found by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office to have had traces of Ambien, a sleeping drug that is often used recreationally, he was not charged before he resigned his Commerce post.
Across the congressional delegation of coastal communities policed by the agents and lawyers out of NOAA’s Northeast Regional Offices in Gloucester, and within the fishing world, the lack of clarity about the status of the second Swartwood report has produced increasing frustration and aggravation.
“Its past time for NOAA to stand up and be held accountable,” said state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester. Her work organizing a letter from state legislative leaders to the congressional delegation in 2009 started a chain reaction that ended with Lubchenco heeding the demands of the delegation and eventually asking for the Commerce Depaatment inspector general to begin an investigation into wrongful police practices.
In a series of reports, Inspector General Todd Zinser documented ways in which law enforcers picked their targets, and acted freely and improperly to extract inflated fines. In addition, Zinser revealed that the then-chief of law enforcement organized a document shredding that might have been aimed at frustrating the inspector general’s teams while they were still in the field, and assembled a massive asset forfeiture fund that was abused at the pleasure of agents.
Locke, now ambassador to China, gave Swartwood a $500,000 budget to do case studies of loose strands from the more general investigations of the inspector general. With additional complaints coming in as the scandal widened, Locke recommissioned Swartwood, who went back to work. In his letter to Lubchenco, Sen. Kerry asked for “an update on the timing of the release of the most recent report” from Swartwood.
“It is my understanding that the report has been completed and may contain crucial additional information about victims and injustice at the hands of NOAA Office of Law Enforcement personnel,” he wrote.
For Brown, the letter was his second seeking to make the report public. His first letter was dated Maty 16.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.