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June 20, 2011

"What does it take to get fired?" senator asks

BOSTON — The fisheries law enforcement culture in New England, which featured bounties and bonuses and millions in fines coming and going as if managed by "cookie jar" rules, is being reformed, the head of the National Marine Fisheries Service told a U.S. Senate subcommittee Monday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NMFS' parent agency, said it has put control of its funds under its CFO, made enforcement of laws more consistent with nationwide standards, and transferred the burden of proof of wrongdoing to enforcement officials.

Faith in the progress proclaimed by NMFS administrator Eric Schwaab at Faneuil Hall, while widespread among the presiding senators and witnesses, was shaky and cut with skepticism. There is no evidence that anyone who participated in the ugliness, documented by the federal Commerce Department's inspector general and a special judicial master over the past 18 months, has been called to account.

"What does it take to get fired at NOAA?" U.S. Sen. Scott Brown asked Schwaab at one point in a three-hour hearing that featured a new report by Inspector General Todd Zinser, this one focused on the small cadre of litigation and enforcement attorneys in the office of the general counsel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NMFS' parent agency.

"Is anybody going to be fired or being held accountable?" the Massachusetts Republican added.

"There is a distinction between being fired and being held accountable," Schwaab retorted.

The latest report from Zinser (see related story), his fourth based on his investigation of law enforcement abuses, featured a redacted description of the awarding of a $2,000 bonus to a litigation and enforcement attorney in a case described as "a high stakes game" featuring the livelihood of a fisherman fighting a $250,000 fine.

The attorney, identified as Charles Juliand by other records possessed by the Times, was singled out in the IG's final report for a series of actions and statements that amounted to conduct unbecoming a federal government attorney charged with enforcing the law.

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