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June 15, 2011

NOAA chief's claim of innocence proven false

In her teleconference here a month ago today — held to apologize to members of the fishing industry for an era of abusive law enforcement actions — NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco sought to insulate herself from culpability.

She did this by proclaiming she had made "fair and effective enforcement a top priority" from her "first day in office," March 20, 2009.

But the earliest action by Lubchenco, according to a chronological log prepared by her office for the Times, didn't come until June 2009, three months later, when, already under pressure from Congress, she called in the Commerce Department inspector general.

In the interval, she was provided briefs and ruled on the middle case of three brought by the agency against the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction, which had become the epicenter of law enforcement intensity and resistance.

Lubchenco's decision to let stand the reinstated case and penalties gave the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's law enforcement arm the justification for issuing a highly publicized shutdown order, which exploded in absurdity — with leaks to the press before the auction had been notified of what proved an illegal action.

When a U.S. District Court judge chastised the agency for attempting to impose penalty on the business while Lubchenco's finding was on appeal to federal court, the public saw some of the first evidence of complaints that NOAA agents and lawyers had been pursuing a "vendetta" against the auction, owned by the Ciulla family.

The underlying agency scandal had been building rapidly around Lubchenco, beginning in February when the agency dropped a giant 59 count case seeking a 120 day shutdown and a fine of more than $300,000.

But it was built on weak and spurious theories — according to the report last month of a special judicial master who concluded that this, the third case was bogus, as were satellite cases against fishermen built on exaggerated evidence.

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