Nearly a month after the event, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues to maintain an information blackout regarding the purpose and cost of a three-night conference in Philadelphia for its legal corps of 135 lawyers and support staff.
The conference began April 30 and ended May 3 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Philadelphia, where none of the agency's legal team practices. NOAA has only weather offices in Philadelphia, two hours by car north of Silver Spring, Md., and Washington, D.C., where NOAA maintains its main offices.
The existence of the conference was first reported by the Florida Keys Keynoter in Marathon, Fla. On May 9, NOAA confirmed to the Times that the Office of General Counsel Lois Schiffer held the four-day conference in Philadelphia, but declined to release a copy of the agenda or a budget for the conference.
"NOAA's Office of General Counsel holds training sessions approximately every two years to provide essential, substantive and skills-based training to staff to increase understanding of substantive law and improve their work together in support of NOAA operations," said NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen. "All training sessions are planned with cost-effectiveness in mind, and NOAA strives to realize savings in overall travel and accommodation costs."
Since that single communique, however, NOAA has not responded to queries by the Times.
In the meantime, NOAA was distracted by a crisis of an incomparably larger scale, which broke public last Friday, involving a budgetary slight of hand at NOAA's National Weather Service serious enough to force the resignation of director Jack Hayes.
Neither Hayes nor NOAA in announcing his replacement, mentioned what Sens. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, described in a letter to Commerce Secretary John Bryson as a practice that "may have become a recurring pattern over the years at the National Weather Service."
"We are deeply troubled to have received information today (Friday) that suggests the National Weather Service may have attempted to cover up undisclosed inadequate budget estimates for operations for local forecast offices by siphoning off funds budgeted for equipment and technology upgrades," Mikulski, who chairs the committee that last month completed its budget review without mention of the shifting from NOAA, and Hutchison, the ranking Republican, wrote to Bryson.
The senators' letter said they were informed the previous day by the Commerce Department's chief financial officer of a proposed "reprogramming" of $35,576,000 within the NOAA budget, for which President Obama has requested $5 billion for the 2013 fiscal year that begins October 1.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Weather Service were each budgeted for just under $1 billion each. But both figures are in flux — especially after the revelations that were reported to Congress by the Commerce Department.
The Senate version of the budget also would defund Gloucester operations at NMFS' Northeast Regional Office's headquarters and shift the services and staffing back to Silver Spring, Md., into Mikulski's district.
Until now, the Weather Service had remained clear of the controversies that have bedeviled NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco almost from the day she took office determined to convert the wild resources of the ocean into an allocated commodities catch share management system.
The unexplained meeting of NOAA's legal staff in Philadelphia occurred as suspicions surfaced that, after a series of embarrassing revelations in reports by the Commerce Department inspector general and a special judicial master, which showed a law enforcement system that abused the civil legal system to take exorbitant fines from fishermen, NOAA might be turning to the criminal system.
Last Wednesday, a day before the Commerce Department informed Congress of the budgetary monkey business at the Weather Service, Congressman John Tierney wrote to Inspector General Todd Zinser asking him to investigate whether NOAA "may be pro actively pursuing the criminal prosecution of fishermen under seldom-invoked laws."
Tierney's letter was accompanied by a copies of criminal indictments or bills of particulars for alleged violations that according to a redacted message from an attorney have previously been handled as civil cases under the provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the overriding statute for the nation's fisheries.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-238-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.