This past Monday, at Faneuil Hall in Boston, there was a remarkable congressional hearing hosted by U.S. Sen. Carper, Democrat of Delaware, and U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts.
The topic was the Asset Forfeiture Fund that is in the control of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and its coffers filled with fines levied against fishermen.
As a backdrop, in addition to the magnificent paintings that grace the hall, and the sculpted busts of good Americans, there was a poster-board illustrating the $300,000 luxury power boat that was purchased with the fund along with descriptions of the trips and cars paid for with the fund.
Congressman John Tierney testified, and called for the abolishment of the fund which provides for a "perverse incentive" in that the NOAA agents have been essentially motivated to aggressively pursue and collect money from fishermen because they could then turn around and reward themselves with cars, trips, and other perks of the job.
Sen. Brown's testimony was focused on holding the government accountable for its expenditures. At one point he stated with incredulity, "NOAA follows the letter of the law on enforcing regulations, but when it comes to the money, NOAA is all loosey goosey."
He drove home the fact that every single employee in the enforcement agency was given a credit card, and the justification for reimbursement of expenses was sometimes non-existent.
One employee took out a cash advance of $2,000 and never provided the backup justifying the expense. When U.S. Inspector General Todd Zinserwas asked about these things during the hearing, he admitted that some of the records were incomplete, to which Sen. Brown responded, "Do you think the shredding of the documents might have had anything to do with it?" It would have been a funny moment if it weren't so shockingly true.
Sen. Carper of Delaware made some very interesting points about how this lack of accountability for spending is pervasive in other parts of the federal government as well. He talked about how Congress has been trying to get financial statements for the Department of Defense for a long time, and how it have been assured it will get them (maybe) by 2017.
Imagine that, our own elected representatives can't get their hands on audited financial statements that represent billions and billions of dollars in taxpayer money for another six years!
The federal government has gotten so unwieldy that it has lost track of basic stewardship of our money.
This hearing was important for many reasons — not the least of which was the opportunity to hear how local businesses such as the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction have been impacted by the perverse financial incentives in place that skew the judgment of law enforcement agents carrying out their duties.
It was also important in that it was a demonstration that the government is answerable to the people. And the people are represented by our elected officials. This is a basic principle of our American democracy.
This congressional hearing called to task employees of the government and demanded they be accountable for their decisions and actions and those of their agency.
I, for one, would like to see and read less about sex scandals involving elected officials and more about how our elected officials are working to eliminate corruption from inside government.
Keep the heat on, Sen. Brown and Sen. Carper — and thank you for standing up for us.
Carolyn Kirk is mayor of the city of Gloucester.