U.S. Sen. John Kerry has agreed to join Sen. Scott Brown in attempting to dislodge from NOAA and make public a suite of documents including those that then-Commerce Secretary Gary Locke relied upon when he "chose not to discipline" members of the law enforcement force implicated in carrying out injustices against the fishing industry.
"As one of the most senior members of the Commerce Committee, Sen. Kerry is asking the Department of Commerce to respond to the questions in Sen. Brown's letter so we can get answers about the Asset Forfeiture Fund, the Office of Law Enforcement, and the impact of NOAA law enforcement on our Massachusetts fishermen," Kerry's press secretary, Jodi Seth, told the Times in an email Thursday.
Seth was referring to a July 29 letter from Brown to Eric Schwaab, administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, that described the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's refusal to turn over documents as "disrespectful to the American people, Congress and the Massachusetts fishermen who have suffered because of NOAA's mismanagement of the fisheries."
She said Kerry had renewed Brown's request in a telephone call to Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, who has taken the request under advisement.
Kerry's office declined to speculate on subsequent steps available to Kerry should he, like Brown, be rebuffed.
Seth also said Kerry was working to reschedule a hearing in Massachusetts for September or October on Amendment 16, the contentious groundfishery regimen that includes the catch share management system. Kerry, like many fishing advocates has said that the system, which allocates "shares" of fishermen's assigned catch under a system that encourages outside investment, large-capital fishing businesses and driving out small boat businesses.
In an oped column this week, fisheries scientist Brian Rothschild of the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth asserted the new system had killed "hundreds if not thousands" of industry jobs.
Oft-frustrated in his effort to extract documents from NOAA, an effort that began in May as he prepared to host a Senate subcommittee hearing in Boston, Brown, a Republican, was left without obvious recourse when faced with NOAA's limited responses and outright refusals.
Unless a government agency asserts "national security," "executive privilege" or some arcane exemption, it is required to comply with formal congressional committee and subcommittee requests, but arguably is not similarly compelled by an individual member's request such as Brown's.
NOAA and Brown had also clashed over NOAA's insistence that he needed to use the Freedom of Information Act.
After Brown's rebuff by NOAA, the subcommittee chairman, Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, declined to pursue the query; instead, he said he believed the material Brown sought was "outside the purview" of the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security.
"To the extent that there are abuses," said a spokeswoman for Carper, "that issue falls under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Committee because they have the oversight of the operations of NOAA."
Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, does not head a Commerce Committee subcommittee but is a member of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard, which is chaired by Sen. Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat.
Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine is the Ranking Republican on the subcommittee, whose other New England member is Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
In his July 29 letter to Schwaab about his "continued disappointment with your office's unresponsiveness to my numerous requests for documents concerning systemic problems at NMFS," Brown reviewed the history of his efforts, dating to May 27 when his subcommittee staff began listing documents "germane" to the June 20 field hearing of Carper's subcommittee.
Facing re-election in 2012, Brown had become a high priority target of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and multiple fishing industry figures told the Times of partisan pressure being put on them to avoid making Brown look good in the days before the hearing in Faneuil Hall.
Brown and Carper bonded across party lines during a trip to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan soon after Brown surprised the political world winning a January 2010 special election to fill out the term of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Brown released a statement Thursday in response to news of Kerry's decision to join in the document quest.
"As he has said before, Sen. Brown believes that fighting for the fishing industry transcends politics and party labels, and he will continue to work across the aisle to help bring accountability to NOAA," said Colin Reed, Brown's spokesman.
"He believes that the documents he requested for his field hearing in June will shed more light on NOAA's improper use of the Asset Forfeiture Fund, and is hopeful he will receive them soon."
"It is clear that NOAA has thus far failed to honor President Obama's stated commitment to transparency," Brown wrote to Schwaab. "It is concerning to me that an agency which has issued large fines to fishermen for paperwork errors has not produced documents when requested to do so by a member of Congress."
Brown focused in on the decision by Locke, now the Ambassador to China, to not hold anyone in the law enforcement system accountable for the miscarriages of justice documented by Special Judicial Master Charles B. Swartwood III. Swartwood's findings helped trigger a public apology issued by Locke to 11 fishermen and fishing-related businesses on May 20.
Locke explained the decision not to sanction, punish, fire or prosecute anyone including Dale J. Jones Jr., who presided over 200 agent Department of Law Enforcement for the decade of violations, writing in his decision memo that "at bottom, these problems were not the product of individual bad acts, but rather the result of conduct enabled and encouraged by the management and enforcement culture in place at the time."
Locke instead prescribed intensified training.
Jones and the entire office of agents and litigators in the Northeast regional office in Gloucester were either transferred or allowed to resign.
FLEOA, the Federal Law Enforcement Officer's Association that represents the agents, angrily wrote to NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco asserting that she has allowed the line agents' reputations to be harmed without defense by the findings in Swartwood's report to Locke.
Administrative law judges also have protested in various ways about the Swartwood reports findings.
And the National Weather Service Employees Organization's attorney Richard Hirn has scoffed at the administration's assertion that NOAA litigators, represented by the union, were undertaking actions against the fishing industry without the knowledge and approval of management.
In its July 12 letter to Lubchenco, FLEOA said it looked forward to a public discussion of the issues at the Senate field hearing in Boston "later this month," apparently referring to the previously scheduled field hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee that Kerry's office's statement refers to.
Kerry had first announced plans for a hearing in the spring, but it was put off more than once for unannounced reasons.
The hearing now slated for September or October "will explore the progress that has been made under the plan, the struggles that continue to plague the industry, and the improvements that must be made to ensure a sustainable, profitable and well managed groundfishery in New England," Seth, Kerry's press secretary, said in her email.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.