GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

August 1, 2010

Lubchenco to hold summit on enforcement

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

Alienated from the New England and Mid-Atlantic fishing community and its pivotal congressional representatives, the Obama administration fisheries chief convenes a one-day national law enforcement summit Tuesday in Washington, D.C., in an attempt to pick up the pieces of a scandalized law enforcement.

The event brings together invited representatives of other law enforcement agencies, environmental non-government organizations, fishing groups, industry lawyers and indigenous people.

The event begins at 9 a.m. with opening remarks by Jane Lubchenco, President Obama's choice to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The summit arrives with her relationship with a Who's Who of influential senators and representatives from Maine to the Gulf states estranged at best.

But Lubchenco has chosen to focus the summit on "improving compliance" and "developing forward-looking strategies to advance ... enforcement."

It will be podcast from the Web site of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The public was not invited to attend the summit at the Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel, but can catch the webcast at http://noaaenforcementsummit2010.ecr.gov.

Fishing industry advocates led by Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, who got a kiss of thanks from the President after he signed the financial regulation reform package two weeks ago, have abandoned efforts to work with Lubchenco and her official superior, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke.

The frustration has moved the impasse between the administration and the industry to the Oval Office.

Frank and Congressman John Tierney, who represent the fishing ports of New Bedford and Gloucester, respectively, asked the White House to sack Lubchenco, but were told that Obama would keep her on the job.

Within the industry, she is widely thought to share the anti-fishing bias of a group of hard-line conservationist scientists and academics. When appointed to head NOAA, Lubchenco was a high official in the Environmental Defense Fund which has been the vanguard for converting the common wealth of the wild schools of fish into investor-friendly commodities — a system known as catch shares.

Her year and half in office has exacerbated the already strained relationship with the fishing industry, struggling against draconian catch limits, a push to convert catch shares, and institutional harassment and vindictive enforcement actions by the police force and legal offices under Lubchenco.

Lubchenco has kept a laser focus on the catch share campaign while law enforcement excesses continued to fester.

The ugly behavior by the ocean police and litigators was exposed by the Commerce Department's inspector general in January, again in March and most recently in early July as findings of phases of a national six-month investigation were made public.

The IG has reported that the roughly 200 special agents and dozens of lawyers operated with impunity, little oversight and restraint in writing up fishermen for often technical administrative violations that were assigned enormous fines well out of proportion to the violations.

IG Todd Zinser's most recent report was explosive — showing that the police and legal operatives were motivated to exploit the fishing community by having unfettered access to the asset forfeiture fund, which involved more than $40 million.

The law enforcers were allowed to use the fund's proceeds as if it were a universal debit card.

Foreign travel unrelated to cases, a luxury boat and more cars than there were agents were charged against the "card."

The epicenter of the law enforcement excesses was Gloucester, specifically the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction, the No. 1 platform for sales of seafood from the Gulf of Maine.

But among the 75 or so invited participants in the summit, none are Gloucester fishermen.

However, New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang, who has been stalwart in defense of the industry, is invited and will represent Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk, she said.

The only Gloucester figure invited is Stephen Ouellette, who maintains an East Coast fisheries and maritime practice.

Ouellette has been documenting exploitative and excessive police and legal actions for more than a decade, and said he intends to seek an ethics investigation by the Massachusetts Bar Association after learning that virtually all non-salary expenses of the NOAA legal offices were drawn from the asset forfeiture fund.

"I have been trying for years to instill some semblance of American justice in NOAA law enforcement process," Ouellette said in a statement to the Times.

"While I do not believe that the current NOAA bureaucracy has sufficient concern for the future of the commercial fishing industry to effect the necessary change, I will continue to avail myself of every opportunity to try to correct and improve the system," he added. "I will be pleasantly surprised if NOAA can be persuaded to make meaningful improvements, but in the likely event NOAA does not, it can never be said that I didn't try."

In announcing a plan to weld the asset forfeiture fund back into the government with budgets, oversight, and controls, Lubchenco last Friday wrote to IG Zinser that "the essence of accountability is taking responsibility."

She added that "transparency drives accountability."

Lubchenco and her seconds in command refused to be interviewed for this story.

Written questions required by her office went unanswered.

Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464 or rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.