GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 2, 2012

'What is NOAA trying to hide?'

Panel chief presses for travel records

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — 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.

Lubchenco has maintained a low profile since making an abbreviated command appearance at a Senate Commerce Committee organized by U.S. Sen. John Kerry in Boston in October 2011, when she left the session early to caucus with The Boston Globe’s editorial board. Kerry had previously postponed his field hearing more than once since spring 2011 while attempting to get Lubchenco to appear and explain fisheries policies which were blamed by Gov. Deval Patrick for helping nudge the Northeast groundfishery into a disaster.

In her four years as President Obama’s head of NOAA — the Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere — she has alienated many in Congress, including Reps. John Tierney and Barney Frank, both Democrats, and Sen. Scott Brown and Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, both Republicans, who have found her unresponsive.

For example, a more than 500 page report involving more than 60 cases studies into allegations of NOAA law enforcement abuse of the fishing industry — commissioned by then-Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, now ambassador to China —has remained unreleased since it was submitted in March by a special investigator Charles B. Swartwood III.

Tierney, Frank, Brown and Jones have all called for Lubchenco’s replacement.

She has not spoken publicly in defense of the catch share policy she made national policy since her contentious appearance more than a year ago before the Senate Commerce Committee. There, Frank pointed our inaccuracies in her oral presentation using her written testimony and accused her of “cherry-picking facts” to make the catch share regimen for the Northeast groundfishery appear more successful than it was.

Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Black declared the fishery to have declined into failure in a terse statement in September, but the disaster declaration was not accompanied by any funding.

“As was seen when inquiry was made about travel records for the enforcement division of NOAA during the investigation of its ‘Forfeiture Fund’, NOAA has a history of being less than transparent and forthcoming about documents,” Tierney said in an email. “Just as I and others had to pursue those records, Congressman Braun is apparently going to have to be aggressive in demanding disclosure of records he is seeking from the Science Committee’s perspective.”

Broun’s first letter to Lubchenco, in April, sought travel records from Jan. 1, 2009 through April 25, 2012 for her, Schwaab, Mary Glackin, deputy under secretary for operations, Margaret Spring — Lubchenco’s chief of staff, now also in charge of external constituents, interagency initiatives, and administration priorities — and Sally Yozell, NOAA’s direector of policy, among others.

By Oct. 24, when Broun wrote a second time, he was noticably aggravated.

“Despite multiple communications from the subcommittee ... NOAA has not produced a single record, nor has it indicated a reasonable schedule for replaying to the subcommittee’s requiest wich was originally sent almost six months ago,” he wrote. “As a result, far from dispelling the subcommittee’s concerns, your delay in responding to the subcommittee’s request only amplifies them, and lends more credibility to the possibility that NOAA senior management engaged in unnecessary or inappropriate travel.”

Little more than a month later, after Broun said Lubchenco had been unresponsive, he wrote again accusing her of making a mockery of transparency.

Lubchenco refused a request for documents from Sen. Brown after Chairman Tom Carper brought the Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security to Boston based on the legal limits of authority of a senator who is not a chairman. Brown and Tierney used FOIA to obtain details about how NOAA agents in Seattle acquired, misused for personal pleasure and then abused a $300,000 luxury speedboat. Notice that the boat was acquired with monies from fisheremen’s fines was contained in a report by the inspector general.

Tierney reiterated his conclusion that Lubchenco should be replaced.

”As I have noted in the past, the administration should be considering agency leadership that is willing to fulfill its responsibilities properly and timely without necessitating constant Congressional pressure,” Tierney wrote in an email to the Times, “and the current leadership continues to fall short of such expectations.”

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.