A Connecticut man has pleaded guilty in federal court to providing false information to the U.S. Commerce Department's special judicial master to obtain reimbursement for fines he had previously paid.
Bruce Fitzsimmons, 54, of Canterbury, Conn. waived indictment and entered a plea Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton to knowingly and willfully making a materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statement and representation in appealing his fines to Special Judicial Master Charles B. Swartwood III.
Fitzsimmons' attempted deception of Swartwood and recovery of penalties charged for fishing in closed areas took place during the second phase of Swartwood's work for the Commerce Department, which has been reportedly submitted to Commerce Secretary John Bryson, and could be made public at any time.
While the former fisherman faces up to five years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $250,000, NOAA agents who also mislead the government during the investigations into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's enforcement system by Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser are not facing similar punishment.
Zinser conducted a detailed investigation into the improper acquisition for $300,000 and misuse and abuse of an undercover cabin boat by an agent or agents of NOAA's Seattle office in 2008. The IG's recent written report asserts that the agent was dishonest with investigators. He has not been fired or prosecuted, the Times has found.
Zinser also testified to Congress that Dale Jones, then director of law enforcement for NOAA, had authorized a mass shredding of official documents from his office while the investigation was ongoing. Jones was moved into a non-law enforcement position but lost only a negligible sum from his $155,000 salary.
NOAA Fisheries regional headquarters are in Gloucester, and from here federal waters and fisheries between Maine and North Carolina are regulated.
Swartwood also reported in detail how an agent in the Gloucester office in 2008 submitted a false request for a search warrant to a government lawyer, who, knowing the document contained incorrect information, nonetheless submitted it to a judge and obtained a search warrant to raid the now defunct Gloucester Seafood Exchange on Harbor Loop. Neither the agent nor the lawyer have been prosecuted or penalized, based on statements by members of Congress and Times' sources.
Zinser found that NOAA agents and litigators had brought wrongful or exaggerated cases with exorbitant fines against fishermen and shoreside businesses, with the bulk of the wrongs committed against Gloucester interests.
Swartwood was engaged to pursue the loose ends of a series of revelations of abuse of fishing industry businesses by the NOAA's law enforcement division following Zinser's investigation.
Based on Swartwood's first report to then-Commerce Secretary Gary Locke (now ambassador to China) in April 2011, which was redacted and made public last May, cabinet-level apologies and more than $600,000 in reparations were given to eight victims of the most egregious examples of justice miscarried.
Fitzsimmons was previously employed as a commercial fisherman in Massachusetts. Between 2005 and 2006, he received two separate notices of violations based upon, among other things, fishing in closed areas.
Initially, Fitzsimmons agreed to a fine of $60,000 and a suspension of his fishing permit. After receiving a second violation notice for a separate violation, Fitzsimmons advised the NOAA General Counsel that he was no longer in the fishing business.
Fitzsimmons negotiated a settlement for both violations and agreed to pay a $50,000 fine for both violations. Fitzsimmons sold his fishing permit to a third party for $80,000 and used a portion of the money to pay off his fine.
In April 2011, Fitzsimmons sent an application request that his case and fine be reviewed by the special master.
Fitzsimmons falsely claimed that he only settled the case because he had received a letter from a NOAA attorney threatening a penalty of $350,000 plus a permit revocation. Through the application and attaching what he said was the letter, Fitzsimmons was seeking reimbursement for the $50,000 he paid to settle both prior violations.
It was later determined that there was no such letter or threat and that Fitzsimmons made false claims and submitted a fabrication in order to obtain money to which he was not entitled from the Department of Commerce.
Fitzsimmons is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 6 at 11 a.m.
The Times reported Friday that Congressman John Tierney has submitted a new set of documents, indictments, case summaries and emails to Zinser that indicate a desire or possibly the practice of shifting focus from civil to criminal cases against the fishing industry by NOAA.
In his letter to Zinser, who is now investigating improper influence on decision-making at NOAA and its New England Fishery Management Council, Tierney wrote the materials suggest NOAA "may be proactively pursuing the criminal prosecution of fishermen under seldom-invoked laws."
Tierney, whose district includes Cape Ann, and Congressman Barney Frank, who represents New Bedford, sought the new probe into whether nongovernment organizations — the Environmental Defense Fund has been named by Frank — exert untoward influence.
Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464 or firstname.lastname@example.org.