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January 28, 2011

Commerce chief clamps limits on past NOAA cases

The U.S. Secretary of Commerce has put written limits on the more open-ended approach he described last September to finding and undoing unjust prosecutions and penalties leveled against fishermen by the federal fisheries law enforcement system.

Secretary Gary Locke's changes to the parameters of a policy he created during a day of meetings with fishermen and their advocates in Boston and Portland, Maine, last fall include rejecting further requests from members of Congress and Gov. Deval Patrick.

Patrick and members of the congressional delegation denounced Locke's decision to put limits on the scope of the review of — search for — cases showing past injustice.

"A culture of 'no' has taken hold of the Department of Commerce," Rep. John Tierney said in a statement. "I will be taking this matter directly to the White House and feel certain a number of my colleagues will join the fight."

According to the Locke memo, the special master he appointed last fall to wrap up the loose ends trailing the most egregious cases — and possibly open new ones — into excessive charges and prosecutions was directed to avoid:

Cases for which no civil penalty was imposed;

Complaints heard before a federal district court judge;

Cases currently before an administrative law judge or the NOAA administrator;

Complaints not submitted to the office of the Inspector General.

Locke also turned down the congressional and gubernatorial request to allow fishermen 45 more days to come forward with new complaints, and to freeze pending sanctions against fishermen until the completion of the work by Special Master Charles Swartwood III, a retired U.S. District Court judge in Boston who also serves as chairman of the state Ethics Commission.

"Once again, the U.S. Department of Commerce has rejected a reasonable request from the Massachusetts fishing industry," Patrick said in a prepared statement. "Granting fishermen an extra 45 days to make their case before Special Magistrate Swartwood would have been a simple act of fairness, demonstrating good faith toward the industry."

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