GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 18, 2011

Special Page 1 Editorial: NOAA’s hollow actions only show need for criminal probe

By Ray Lamont
Staff Writer

— They’ve ripped off the fishermen for hundreds of thousands of dollars over a decade or more.

They spent it on foreign travel, a luxury boat and cars — lots and lots of cars. And they got caught.

So now they’re going to give the money back, or at least some of it. And they say they’re sorry but not sorry enough to punish anyone.

Now they want to be friends? They want us to trust them?

They’ve got to be kidding.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and NOAA chief administrator Jane Lubchenco have “apologized” for the years of wrongs carried out by NOAA enforcement agents against fishermen and waterfront businesses like the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction.

They’re returning some of the fishermen’s fines — a little less than $650,000 overall. And they hope these actions will bring a new era of trust between the government and the commercial fishing industry, right?

Wrong. Rather than making a case for moving forward, Lubchenco’s and Locke’s hollow actions and comments make the strongest case yet for our congressional leaders to name an independent federal prosecutor who can carry out the kind of criminal investigation that is now desperately needed.

Consider the following:

Locke conceded a new investigative report — for which he  commissioned retired judge Charles B. Swartwood III — shows that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration enforcement agents “overstepped their bounds.”

Do you think? The report notes that agents falsified an affidavit for a search warrant, then later executed a “warrantless” entry — usually called an illegal break-in — at the Gloucester seafood auction.

Yet Locke says none of the agents involved in those actions or then-NOAA police chief Dale Jones will be punished for their actions. Locke believes those actions were carried out due to improper training. Baloney. The actions of agent-in-charge Andrew Cohen & Co. sound as if they were really trained all too well for a federal policing force agents once bragged was “accountable to no one.”

The “reparations” of fines, many tied to a notorious “yellowtail” regulatory letter that had misled fishermen and encouraged them to “rat out” the auction over fabricated charges of a black market scheme, don’t come close to making amends to many. Example 1: Rockport’s Bill Lee, who paid his penalty in quota currency and by forfeiting his paid “days at sea.” Locke says he has no means of redressing those types of penalties, which were commonplace. The solution? Easy — Find one.

NOAA’s and Commerce’s own handling of Swartwood’s report – kept under wraps and “worked on” for 30 days — looks like a blatant coverup.

As noted by fishing industry lawyer Pamela LaFreniere, one redacted section, leads to a single sentence by Swartwood. It reads, “I find this email to be credible evidence that money was NOAA’s motivating objective in this case.”

In other words, neither protection of the fish stocks nor the validity of the charges were top priorities — that NOAA’s chief goal was simply building up its Asset Forfeiture Fund. That indeed is the fund that was built on fishermen’s fines and from which the agency funded exotic overseas travel, purchase of a luxury boat, and the buildup of a fleet of more cars than NOAA had agents.

NOAA spokesman Justin Kenney says all the redactions come under headings of “attorney-client privilege,” “personal privacy concerns,” and the like. But It sounds more like protecting the names of the guilty from public scrutiny and liability.

None of this, troubling as it sounds, is surprising.

Ex-NOAA police chief Jones, you’ll recall, was flagged by the Inspector General’s report for shredding documents in the midst of the IG’s probe. Yet he’s still on NOAA’s taxpayer-funded payroll, having slid sideways into a $150,000 year job dealing with fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico.

The bottom line is this: Falsifying affidavits, breaking into businesses, shredding documents that are part of a federal investigation, covering up aspects of a publicly-commissioned investigation, and misusing revenues from regulatory fines — excessive or otherwise — area full-fledged criminal actions.

That’s why Congress must commission an independent, appropriate investigation, run by a prosecutor with the subpoena power to get to the bottom of this cesspool.

The fishermen and other waterfront business owner have been criminally victimized by a wing of their own government. And “sorry” isn’t going to cut it, even while NOAA throws money at the problem to boot.

Let a full criminal investigation begin. It’s long overdue.