By Richard Gaines
About two thirds of the way through the Senate Commerce Committee hearing organized by Sen. John Kerry in Boston, the lightning-rod witness, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, got up and led her entourage out of the State House, creating bad optics and hard feelings.
She stayed only up to the moment marine scientist Brian Rothschild, a learned critic of Lubchenco policies, began his presentation.
But while Lubchenco's communications staff that Monday — Oct. 3 — explained she had a preexisting appointment, they rebuffed inquires from the Times for details of her reason for leaving early, and after getting more than an earful from Senate and congressional colleagues of Kerry's, especially Sen. Scott Brown, and Reps. Barney Frank and John Tierney.
Thursday, the Times confirmed from multiple sources that Lubchenco left the field hearing — one that Kerry postponed more than once to accommodate her — for a meeting across town aimed at lobbying support from the Editorial Board of The Boston Globe.
Asked to explain the decision Thursday, Justin Kenney, Lubchenco's communications director, issued a statement.
"Dr. Lubchenco arrived Sunday night, testified Monday morning and answered every question and stayed at the hearing for much of the second panel," Kenney said. "Before returning to Washington for afternoon appointments, she met with reporters and editorial board members of The Boston Globe.
"This meeting (with the Globe)," said Kenney, "was an opportunity to discuss the progress we've made and the challenges we face in rebuilding our fisheries and strengthening the jobs and communities that depend on them."
Learning Thursday that Lubchenco had left the Senate hearing for an editorial board meeting, Sen. Brown — who invited Lubchenco to testify at a Senate subcommittee hearing he organized in June, only to have her decline, and send assistant administrator Eric Schwaab instead — issued a statement saying he questions whether she is the right person for the job.
Meanwhile, the mayors of Gloucester and New Bedford said Thursday they considered her decision to leave during testimony an affront.
"Trying to spin this issue will not make it go away," said Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk. "The fleet is consolidating, jobs and small businesses are being lost, and port infrastructure is in jeopardy.
"It is disturbing to see Dr. Lubchenco turn a deaf ear on the negative economic impact these national policies have on coastal communities," Kirk said.
New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang reiterated his statement issued after the hearing that bemoaned his sense Lubchenco cannot be trusted. He once again called on President Obama to replace her, or suffer politically in traditional Democratic strongholds as the price for re-engineering the groundfishery into a job-killing, government-driven commodities market.
"She has failed every possible test," said Lang. "She needed to hear every witness. They had a lot to say that she needed to hear. It was not appropriate to leave before everyone had completed their statements."
The one statement she was not present to hear was Rothschild's. A distinguished marine scientist at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, Rothschild is revered within the industry and was Barney Frank's nominee to head the National Marine Fisheries Service, but Lubchenco refused to make the appointment and earned the ire and suspicion along the docks for a decision she never explained.
"NOAA promised that catch share system would end the race to fish, rebuild fisheries and sustain communities and vibrant working waterfronts, increase conservation of species, reduce the management costs; and, produce more and better data.," Rothschild said his prepared remarks that day. "None of these promises have been fulfilled; In fact, the system has resulted in losses of landings, revenue and jobs, a controversial reallocation of wealth, and a failure to eliminate chronic, costly overfishing and underfishing."
Brown said Lubchenco's actions show she refuses to hear, let alone address, the industry's concerns.
"I was very disappointed in Administrator Lubchenco's lack of clear answer to specific questions at the hearing," Brown said, "and I am even more troubled that she was not able to stay for the entire time to actually hear from local fishermen and scientists on how NOAA is hurting jobs in fishing communities in Massachusetts."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.