, Gloucester, MA

April 20, 2010

Editorial: Congress must stand up to NOAA's lack of accountability on Jones

It's been two weeks since Dale J. Jones, police chief for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was reportedly ousted from his post.

But since then, there has not been a word from NOAA head Jane Lubchenco about his status. In fact, it is not even official that he has been dismissed.

That lack of transparency has become characteristic of Lubchenco's administration. But it is not acceptable. Such stonewalling smacks more of the days of President Nixon than President Obama's promise of open government.

Indeed, the only indication that Jones may be out came April 8, when Eric Schwaab, chosen in February by Lubchenco to lead the National Marine Fisheries Service, issued a statement that said nothing about Jones — it did not even mention him — but announced that Alan Risenhoover, who has no law enforcement experience, would be taking the post temporarily.

Has Jones been fired? Suspended? Allowed to "retire"? Is he still on the payroll? If so, in what capacity?

Those are all very legitimate questions to which fishermen long abused at the hands of Jones and Gloucester-based henchmen Andrew Cohen and Chuck Juliand are entitled to answers. Indeed, all American taxpayers who may well be still paying Jones and his jack-booted comrades have every right to know if that's the case.

Yet, there have been no answers from Lubchenco.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons to fire Jones and his partners in contempt.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, chairman of the House Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, revealed that Jones had shredded 75 percent of the material in his files last November, during the final stages of a national investigation into his agency's enforcement of commercial fishing regulations in the New England region.

Under Jones' administration, fines levied against fishermen in the Northeast have been 250 percent or more above those levied in other areas of the country. Plus, NOAA agents working under Jones, made an unauthorized, after-hours forced entry into the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction, according to a 2006 Gloucester Police report, in an effort to build a case of violations against the business — a case that was settled with vastly reduced penalties and no admission of guilt by the Gloucester waterfront business.

Then, in February — even after release of a damning preliminary report from federal Inspector General Todd Zinser, NOAA enforcement agents under Jones visited Monte Rome, owner of the Intershell specialty seafood distributorship, to question him about possible testimony he might give in the pending trial of the auction, before the case was settled — a clear case of intimidation.

Yet Cohen and Juliand both apparently remain in good standing. Cohen is scheduled to make a presentation Monday night at a NOAA Fisheries Service law enforcement forum, and Juliand has said he plans to attend.

That, again, sounds like more business as usual. And Lubchenco appears to be focused on ramming through a new regulatory regime by May 1, in spite of demands from both the industry and members of Congress to delay it. The so-called "catch share" system is expected to drive even more fishermen out of business, in an industry reeling not solely from the stalled economy, but thanks to this government agency and its flawed regulations built on shaky science.

There are many reports of NOAA enforcement agents who, while carrying out their heavy-handed tactics, defiantly told victims who asked that they were, in fact, "accountable to no one."

Now, Lubchenco and her regime's co-leaders seem to have adopted that tack as well. And that lack of accountability is insulting to members of Congress, including Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown, and Massachusetts Congressmen John Tierney, Barney Frank and William Delahunt, not to mention to fishermen and taxpayers across the country.

If Lubchenco wants her agency to have any credibility or respect, she and her colleagues must deliver answers to the questions about Jones' status now. To do otherwise proves that Lubchenco holds Congress, the fishing industry and the American people in the same contempt as Jones. And it's time Congress held her accountable as well.

We're waiting, Dr. Jane, and we won't let it go. Congress can't, either.