, Gloucester, MA

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August 23, 2010

NOAA agent's cash demand draw ethics fire

NOAA fisheries attorney Charles Juliand's inflexible demand for cash — nearly $50,000 from a well-liked Rhode Island commercial fisherman — seemed like just another example of hard bargaining at the time, four years ago.

But Juliand's rejection of offers by Greg Duckworth to surrender his federal groundfishing permit in lieu of cash, and Juliand's rejection of any installment payment plan has now taken on what one private attorney has called "provocative" overtones as questions swirl around the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's dependence on the fines captured from fishermen to fund overseas travel by agents and operational spending by NOAA's Office of General Counsel.

"Excessive fines are normal," said Gloucester-based fisheries attorney Stephen Ouellette. "Regulatory compliance is less important to them than collecting money for their expenses."

The U.S. Commerce Department Inspector General reported July 1 that the Office of General Counsel for Enforcement and Litigation — which sets the fines for alleged violations, then prosecutes them through an administrative law system — that draws "more than 99 percent of its non-salary operating expenses" from the Asset Forfeiture Fund.

The fines were also used to pay for foreign travel unrelated to cases and for exorbitant purchases by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Law Enforcement. Inspector General Todd Zinser's office also found the police force had purchased more vehicles, 202, than the 172 officers it had on the force, along with what a brochure described as a "luxurious" undercover police boat.

The IG's findings has prompted howls of complaints about Juliand and his lawyers in the Gloucester regional NOAA enforcement office having a vested interest in the size of fines, despite repeated NOAA denials.

The IG reported that, over 41/2 years through June 2009, the police and litigators had charged $580,000 to the Asset Forfeiture Fund for international travel to 40 destinations, including $109,000 for a contingent of 21 to attend a 2008 international conference in Norway.

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