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July 1, 2010

Audit cites wide fund abuse by NOAA cops

Tens of millions in fines levied against U.S. commercial fishermen held in an unrecorded account were used by the fisheries law enforcement division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to fuel extravagant purchases and foreign travel, according to a forensic audit for a U.S. inspector general made public Thursday.

Among the discoveries by the accounting firm KPMG, brought in by Department of Commerce's IG's office, was that NOAA police own more vehicles "by a substantial margin" than they have officers — 202 vehicles for 172 officers.

The audit also found multiple purchases on the same day from the same vendor, six-figure overseas' convention spending and the purchase of 22 vessels — including a $300,000 "undercover" vessel described by the manufacturer as "luxurious," with a "beautifully appointed cabin." All of those purchases bypassed internal review, the audit found.

In all, the mess of an asset forfeiture fund — used by the police and legal divisions — was of a magnitude greater than estimated by the initial investigators of IG Todd Zinser.

While the Asset Forfeiture Fund was loosely estimated last spring to involve $8.5 million, the forensic audit concluded that NOAA fisheries law enforcement may have brought in as much as $96 million over 41/2 years through June 2009 and spent $49 million via more than 82,000 transactions.

Although the investigation of the fund covers only as far back as January 2005, the police chief, Dale Jones, was appointed in 1999 late in the administration of President Bill Clinton.

Jones apparently was removed from his office — if not the payroll — in March after Zinser announced at a congressional oversight hearing here in Gloucester, the epicenter of resistance to NOAA law enforcement and fisheries management policies, that his teams had evidence Jones misused the fund for personal overseas travel.

The next day, at a different oversight hearing into NOAA law enforcement abuses in Washington, Zinser made another major accusation — that Jones had ordered the shredding of documents while the IG's investigation was nearing its conclusion.

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