Regardless of how one feels about the premise of presidential pardons — and recognizing that James A. Bordinaro has long since served his 12 months in prison and paid a $55,000 fine for his role in a 1980s fishing scam — there is real irony in the fact that President Obama chose the former Gloucester fishing executive for one of the 17 pardons issued last Friday.
For, by the timing of the White House announcement, it seems clear now that the president and others within his administration are willing to give higher priority to pardoning a man who, by his own admissions, cheated the federal government and, on the surface, undermined the fishing industry in the process — yet the same administration cannot provide federal relief for today’s fishermen, despite our own Department of Commerce’s recognition that the Northeast groundfishery is an “economic disaster.”
In announcing Bordinaro’s pardon — and the pardons granted 16 others across the country— the White House offered no explanation, other than the fact that the president believes Bordinaro and his pardoned colleagues can, in fact, live “productive lives.” And that’s all well and good.
Yet, today’s fishermen will have a hard time living financially “productive lives” and making ends meet for their families if indeed the dire cuts of up to 77 percent in Gulf of Maine cod limits take hold beginning May 1 as planned. And keep in mind that these cuts are based on science and government assessments ripe with credibility questions, and based on a legal advisory note from a NOAA general counsel whose own credibility and advice was shot down two summers ago by her own Secretary of Commerce. That’s right, NOAA General Counsel Deidre Casey advised then-chief administrator Jane Lubchenco to simply make changes in NOAA enforcement without looking to right past wrongs carried out against fishermen; thankfully, then-Secretary Charles Locke essentially told her to stick that legal advice in the trash and ordered more than $600,000 repaid to wronged fishermen and waterfront businesses.
One can only wonder what Casey thinks of Bordinaro’s pardon. He was, after all, charged and pleaded guilty to two counts regarding a scheme to defraud the Defense Department by rigging government service bids and passing off Canadian-caught fish as American-landed seafood during the period between 1981 and 1989, and by rigging bids for the prices the government was paying. Federal court documents show that Bordinaro, his Empire Fish Company, and one of his co-conspirators — identified as Francis J. O’Hara of F.J. O’Hara and Sons, Inc. — began discussing and fixing Defense Personnel Support bids with other fish processors sometime around 198, and continued through 1989.
The other count takes on an irony all its own. At the time, the government required that all seafood sold to the Department of Defense be of U.S. origin. And Bordinaro and his colleagues defrauded the system, passing off Canadian fish as if it were landed and processed here — an act that, if it didn’t hurt local fishermen in the pocketbook, at least undermined their credibility, as well.
Yet, the government itself has seen to it that such a requirement would be nearly impossible to achieve today; that’s because NOAA-mandated limits based on flawed science has so limited the industry that 90 percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported.
There is a solution to the current fishing crisis — one that would be an effective one for fishermen and for enviro regulators and watchdogs alike. That would be for the White House to stand up and issue an executive order calling to a year’s extension to the 22 percent catch limit that Gulf of Maine cod fishermen are abiding by this year, and will through the change of seasons after April 30.
The fact is, today’s groundfishing industry, centered right here in Gloucester, is on the brink of virtual extinction. The government recognizes that through seeing the “economic disaster.” And each day, more signs emerge that it is a disaster of our government’s own, calculated making.
Shouldn’t rectifying those wrongs come before any more pardons?
Then, when the disaster is addressed, perhaps NOAA leaders can request a pardon of their own.