GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

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February 16, 2012

IG probe finds NOAA fund still not tracked

NOAA's Asset Forfeiture Fund, comprised of fines paid for Magnuson-Stevens Act fisheries violations, remains without controls that deter fraud, a newly published report by the U.S. Commerce Department inspector general has found.

Among key findings is that the fund — which has come to epitomize the past dysfunction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's police and litigating units — is not effectively monitored.

That failure creates circumstances that can still allow the misappropriation of money "without detection," the inspector general found

"NOAA has no assurance that all proceeds from assessed fines, penalties and forfeitures are received and accurately recorded," said the report, which was sent Feb. 8 to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco by Ann C. Eileers, principal assistant IG for audit and evaluation.

Agents and litigators are allowed to both collect, record and deposit fines and penalties, creating "opportunities for fraud," the report found.

U.S. Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown and Coingressman John Tierney, whose district includes Cape Ann, read the report Wednesday as a troubling sign that NOAA has not begun regaining public trust.

At the end of March 2011, the fund had an unrestricted cash balance of $7.5 million after a $3.9 million write-off of accounts receivable, according to an independent audit commissioned by NOAA.

Although the Asset Forfeiture Fund figured centrally in the law enforcement scandal unearthed by the IG's office in 2010, the problems predated the Obama administration; under congressional pressure and in the face of a series of reports and revelations from IG Todd Zinser, Lubchenco reassigned law enforcement leaders and promised a full cleanup.

The most aggrieved industry victims, including businesses and fishermen in Gloucester, were given a Cabinet level apology and shared more than $600,000 in reparations.

But the new report indicates that the Lubchenco administration has not fixed the system of penalties and fines, whose worst excesses were concentrated in the Northeast Regional Office, based in Gloucester at the Blackburn Industrial Park.

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