GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

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July 14, 2010

Lawmakers push for NOAA reparations funding

The state's legislative leadership and coastal caucus have petitioned Massachusetts' congressional delegation to back a plan setting aside some $96 million from the fiscal 2011 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration budget to compensate subjects of miscarriages of justice against the fishing industry.

The U.S. Commerce Department's Inspector General recently documented how the federal fisheries police and litigation and enforcement departments built a massive Asset Forfeiture Fund of fines levied excessively on fishermen and related businesses, and used it to fund luxurious purchases and unauthorized foreign travel.

"There is, unfortunately, no easy solution that will wipe away years of inappropriate actions by NOAA," the state lawmakers wrote their federal colleagues. "But the sooner action is taken to make whole those who have borne the brunt of an agency's excessive use of its enforcement power, the sooner the fishing industry, which has supported New England families for hundreds of years and is one of the defining pieces of the culture of Massachusetts, can move forward."

The aim of the letter — to compel NOAA to attempt to rectify the miscarriages of justice — has become a popular cause with the bipartisan congressional alliance of senators and representatives supporting the fishing industry ever since NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco implicitly endorsed the plan of her two top enforcement appointees — Chief Counsel Lois Schiffer, and fisheries administrator Eric Schwaab — to reform the system without stopping to review the excesses of authority that brought down and weakened many fishing businesses.

Schiffer declined to be interviewed, a request that was made in writing on Tuesday, and NOAA's press office did not provide answers to written questions also submitted Tuesday.

The lawmakers' letter was signed by state House Speaker Robert DeLeo of Winthrop, Senate President Therese Murray of Plymouth, which has a small commercial fleet, and 19 legislators representing the hub ports of New Bedford and Gloucester and smaller pockets of commercial fishing. The $96 million figure matches the estimated size of the Asset Forfeiture Fund as listed in an audit commissioned by the Commerce Department's Inspector General's Office.

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