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December 2, 2012

'What is NOAA trying to hide?'

Panel chief presses for travel records

The chairman of the federal House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight has written a third letter to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco seeking executive travel records that have been withheld from Congress, asserting that “this level of recalcitrance mocks the notion of transparency.”

Chairman Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican, wrote previously to Lubchenco seeking travel records on April 26 and Oct. 24. His letter of last Thursday ended with the question “I must ask myself — what is NOAA trying to hide?”

In the latest letter, which the Times obtained, Broun wrote that “by law, NOAA must comply with citizen requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act within 20 working days. I shouldn’t have to remind you that a congressional committee with jurisdiction over NOAA is afforded greater access than that of citizens under FOIA.”

Lubchenco’s spokeman Scott Smullen emailed the Times that “we will soon provide an answer to the congressman.”

The Commerce Department inspector general, Todd Zinser, revealed in 2010 that NOAA’s agents and litigators had improperly gone to conventions in exotic locales, covered with money drawn from excessive fines exacted from fishermen and fishing industry businesses.

The revelations led to a Cabinet-level apology and more than $650,000 in reparations, but no one was fired or punished, leading Sen. Scott Brown to ask NMFS Administrator Eric Schwaab at a special 2011Senate subcommittee hearing in Boston, “What does it take to get fired at NOAA?”

The first letter to Lubchenco from Rep. Broun, whose subcommittee is under the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said he was writing after “a number of questions have arisen relating to the travel by senior NOAA management.”

He identified 11 senior officials — including Lubchenco, Eric Schwaab and Monica Medina — as of particular interest. Lubchenco appointed Schwaab to head the National Marine Fisheries Service and named Medina to head the catch share task force and a deputy undersecretary. Medina left NOAA last year to become a special assistant to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

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