By Richard Gaines
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.
More than a year ago, at the urging of Gloucester's delegation, Sen. Bruce Tarr and Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, DeLeo, Murray and a similar group of coastal legislators, began the lobbying that eventually moved the congressional delegation to demand that Lubchenco have the IG look into complaints of vindictive actions targeted at selected fishing-based businesses.
Sen. John Kerry and Rep. John Tierney, both Massachusetts Democrats, have taken lead roles in pressing NOAA for clarity into the nature of the problems and reforms, while Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, both Republicans, have staked out positions that parallel the requests made by the Beacon Hill letter writers.
From both parties up and down the Atlantic coast have come calls for Lubchenco to resign or be sacked.
The White House has pledged — according to Congressman Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee — that the policy changes he has pushed, including increased fishing opportunities and relief from excessive regulation, can be achieved without Lubchenco's removal.
The legislators' letter, meanwhile, focused on NOAA law enforcement.
"We believe that the $96 million that (the auditing firm) KPMG estimates constitutes the balance of the Asset Forfeiture Fund should be withheld from NOAA's annual appropriation, and that Congress should establish a Fishermen's Compensation Fund, made up of the money withheld from NOAA..."
The money set aside would be used "to repay individuals against whom NOAA levied finds over the appropriate period of time." the letter said.
Hired by IG Todd Zinser to audit the fund, KPMG found that the police and legal offices may have spent more than $40 million over a 41/2 year period through mid-2009 on travel and purchases well beyond the legal purposes for the fines.
The enforcement and litigation office financed nearly all its activities with the fund, thus creating a motive for excessive and exaggerated charges, according to Stephen Ouellette, a prominent Gloucester fisheries lawyer, who has proposed that the Massachusetts Bar Association and Congress investigate possible ethical violations.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3446, or firstname.lastname@example.org.