GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 8, 2011

Lubchenco won't show for key Boston hearing

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

NOAA chief administrator Jane Lubchenco, here last month to announce reparations and apologize for excesses and misuse of police authority in enforcing the Magnuson-Stevens Act, has declined a U.S. Senate subcommittee invitation to testify about law enforcement and the hotly disputed privatization regimen for which she has crusaded.

Instead, she will send a subordinate — Eric Schwaab — whom she appointed administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"Yes, Dr. Lubchenco was invited to testify," said Justin Kenney, NOAA's communications director, in an email. "However, since Eric Schwaab is ... leading the reform of our enforcement program, it was determined that he was the best person to testify."

As the law enforcement abuse scandal broke, Schwaab and Lois Schiffer, NOAA's chief counsel, convinced Lubchenco to ignore miscarriages of justice while reforming the system. It was a decision that drew howls from Congress and was overturned by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in September during a meeting with political and industry leaders in Boston.

Lubchenco was to have been paired in the first session of the Monday, June 20 hearing in Boston's Faneuil Hall with Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser, who confirmed his place as a witness before the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Service.

"NOAA is at a critical juncture," Zinser concluded in his report on his investigation.

Supplemented by explosive March 2010 testimony to congressional subcommittees of document shredding and millions of dollars missing or unaccounted for from NOAA enforcement's Asset Forfeiture Fund, his reports led to transfers of the director of national law enforcement and most of the cadre of attornies and agents in Gloucester — but no firings or disciplinary penalties.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a Delaware Democrat, chairs the subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts is the ranking Republican.

Zinser's national investigation in 2010 documented chronic industry claims that agents and attorneys at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Northeast Regional Office in Gloucester had been operating with impunity to exact exorbitant and debilitating fines and in some cases settle scores.

The list of invitees to the second panel features Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, the controversial organization for which Lubchenco served as board vice chairwoman before her nomination by President Obama to head NOAA after the 2008 election.

EDF did not respond to calls and an email Wednesday asking if Krupp would testify.

Also invited were industry representatives Larry Ciulla of the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction and former New Bedford scalloper Larry Yacubian, whose businesses were debilitated from enforcement miscarriages and were granted a repayment of fines — but nothing close to their losses — and form letters of apology from the Department of Commerce last month.

The mea culpas did little to salve the wounds, based on comments from industry members following the May 18 event in Gloucester.

Many in and associated with the industry also wonder at EDF's influence and inside knowledge.

Fueled by tens of millions of dollars in grants from private funders such as the Walton Foundation (Wal-Mart) to convert America's fishery management systems into corporate- and investor-friendly commodities markets, EDF — known for its faith in capital markets, and the so-called "cap-and-trade" economic system for dealing with air pollution — joined like-minded allies in mobilizing a multi-media push to convince the new administration to accelerate catch share systems for fisheries.

Their claim — based on grant funded science — was that, without catch shares, the oceans would be emptied of all but jellyfish by 2048. But the report set off a furious argument within the scientific community and has been debunked by extensive data, much of it NOAA's, showing that many fish stocks have been effectively rebuilt.

And while EDF gathered more than $30 million to advance catch shares, on the Florida Keys, the Monroe County Commercial Fishermen's Association warned in flyers the acronym EDF meant "Exceptionally Deceptive on Fishing." Despite fierce protests by independent fishermen and businesses on all three coasts — and especially in New England — EDF has continued to claim that catch shares were popular.

In February, a budget rider to bar new catch shares rollouts this fiscal year which was filed by Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, gained approval by a 251-151 margin in the U.S. House, and the measure held up for approval by the Senate.

But an undeterred Lubchenco has persisted and called on grant funding to keep the programs in rapid development.

In addition to Ciulla and Yacubian, the second panel at the Boston hearing will include Gloucester attorney Stephen Ouellette and Vito Giacalone, policy director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region's largest industry group, and University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth marine scientist Brian Rothschild.

IG Zinser pointed out in a report that many of the excesses he found had been documented a decade earlier, by Ouellette, though he was not identified by name.

The hearing, entitled, "How is NOAA managing funds to protect the domestic fishing industry," is scheduled to begin in Faneuil Hall at 10 a.m. on June 20.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.