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May 29, 2010

NOAA's 'stonewall' draws fire

Lawmakers, lawyers decry stand on Jones documents

The virtual blackout of information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for nearly two months on its response to evidence of potential corruption and obstruction of justice by the former chief of its ocean police was greeted Friday with anger and disappointment.

The contrast between the heavy-handed approach to policing the fishing fleet, which emerged as a defining characteristic of NOAA law enforcement in the report of the Commerce Department's Inspector General , and the acquiescence of NOAA to the oil industry and other agencies to banking was cited in criticism of the agency's decision against releasing information about the status of former chief Dale Jones and other questions.

"While BP, like the Wall Street financial institutions, is the poster child for what happens in the absence of appropriate regulation by government on behalf of citizens," said Congressman John Tierney, "the fishing regulatory scheme provides the caution that there must be aggressive oversight of agencies to ensure fair interpretation of the law and fair application and enforcement."

Congressman Barney Frank and New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang, among others, have made similar observations.

As reported in the Times, NOAA declined Thursday to release documents sought by the newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act about the status of Jones, who had been chief of police for more than 10 years until an interim successor without any law enforcement experience was named last month.

NOAA has not indicated whether Jones remains employed.

Among other documents, the Times had sought a copy of the final report by the Commerce Department Inspector General into a mass document shredding allegedly authorized by Jones as the IG's investigation of the NOAA police and prosecuting offices was wrapping up last fall.

NOAA wrote that a document fitting the description of the one sought by the Times was protected from release by an exemption for records "compiled for law enforcement purposes, the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings."

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