GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 21, 2010

NOAA's Cohen still in 6-figure job, with undefined 'role'

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

Andrew Cohen, the former federal fisheries agent in charge of law enforcement for the Northeast working out of Gloucester, continues to receive his annual salary of at least $123,000 after being relieved of virtually all previous duties, according to official communications.

Cohen remains at his "duty station in Gloucester," but reports "directly" to Acting Law Enforcement Director Alan Risenhoover in Silver Spring, Md., where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is based.

That and other e-mails from Risenhoover's office did not specify Cohen's role, but made clear that he is "in a non-supervisory position that does not include direct involvement with any enforcement actions in the Northeast."

A NOAA e-mail Tuesday said that Cohen is taking "assignments" that put him in contact with "partner nations to help eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing."

Cohen and his former cadre of agents in Gloucester are believed to be the focus of an investigation by the Commerce Department inspector general into the motives and tactics of a relentless effort to prove violations of the Magnuson-Stevens Act by the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction.

Three cases brought during the past decade against the auction, the linchpin of the seaport economy here in processing fish landed in the Gulf of Maine, were resolved in a settlement last March that absolved the auction of any violation history in exchange for a fine that proved a fraction of Cohen's proposed penalties.

The NOAA e-mails listed Sept. 13 as the date of Cohen's detachment from enforcement actions in the Northeast region, which runs from Maine through the Carolinas and is governed from NOAA's regional headquarters in Gloucester's Blackburn Industrial Park.

Five days earlier, the Times reported that Cohen, since 2003, had been using his government-issue cell phone to conduct a commercial Internet garage sale via eBay and other platforms.

In a Sept. 16 message, NOAA said it was "reviewing the allegation about the government phone."

In Tuesday's e-mail, responding to another Times query, NOAA cited the Privacy Act and declined to provide an update on its review.

The federal Ethics Code states that "employees may use government property only for authorized purposes. Government property includes office supplies, telephones, computers, copiers and any other property purchased with Government funds."

Cohen gave eBay and other auction sales platforms the same telephone number he provided to U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock more than a year ago as his official contact.

The number was provided in a deposition to the court required by the judge in his investigation of how and why Cohen launched a public relations campaign that included a leak to The Boston Globe and a press release that wrongly implied the auction was about to be temporarily closed for allegedly violating an earlier agreement on the first of three cases brought by NOAA in 2000.

Cohen's June 19, 2009, press release stated that "NOAA is now notifying the auction it must comply with the 2003 agreement's terms and serve the 10-day sanction, effectively shutting down the auction to federally managed fish for 10 days."

The auction at the time had filed a federal court appeal of NOAA's sanction decision, which precluded Cohen's enforcement of the appealed order — and brought the matter to Woodlock's courtroom. Woodlock chastised Cohen and NOAA for the tactics.

NOAA never followed with news releases that reported the judge's repudiation of Cohen's efforts, or the settlement on terms favorable to the auction.

Federal Department of Commerce Inspector General Todd Zinser undertook his national investigation of NOAA law enforcement practices against the fishing industry based on complaints of vindicative motives in the effort to prove illegal actions at the auction.

In his initial report, the IG reported that fines levied in the northeast — New England and the Mid-Atlantic states — were five times higher than those meted out in other parts of the country.

He also concluded that agents were allowed to operate autonomously by longtime Director of Law Enforcement Dale J. Jones Jr. and, without supervision, were prone to settle scores and treat fishermen as criminals for technical violations of complex regulatory requirements.

In July, came even more powerful revelations — this time about abuse of the fund of fines — called the Asset Forfeiture Fund — built on the penalties paid by fishermen for alleged violations. Over 41/2 years, some $50 million passed through the fund, according to an audit commissioned by the IG's office, and much of it not be traced due to lack of oversight, the auditors found.

The IG also found that NOAA depended on the fund for nearly all non-salaried activities of the Office of General Counsel for Enforcement and Litigation, which takes investigations and converts them into cases. The Office of Law Enforcement also used the fund for extensive foreign travel unrelated to cases and spent freely on vehicles — more than one per agent, the IG's report noted.

Cohen was proud of the heavy penalties levied against the fishing industry.

In January 2009, he sent a memo to the New England Fishery Management Council with a summary of active cases to show the high price put on violations.

Among those cited were cases brought against the Axelssons, a family of struggling herring fishermen in New Jersey.

Cohen bragged that the family's two herring boats were fined a combined $270,000 with permits suspended for a combined 12 months for "record-keeping and reporting violations."

Together with the other 12 cases he cited, Cohen said over the past 30 months, NOAA had "taken actions" to assess more than $1.1 million in penalties.

Cohen failed to note, however, that two weeks before he wrote his memo, an administrative law trial judge had cut the penalties drastically — suspending $216,000 of the $270,000 fine sought and 11 of the 12 months of permit suspension after finding that the Axelsson family could not have profited in any way from the reporting failures.

Cohen did not return phone calls Tuesday, but last week referred all questions to headquarters.

In his written decision, the judge expressed concern that the penalties sought might bankrupt the business which employs as many as 20 people, but had lost more than $1 million cumulatively in the past three years.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertiems.com.