By Patrick Anderson
The long suspected but closely guarded secret that ousted federal fisheries police chief Dale J. Jones remains on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration payroll was pried from the agency this week by a subpoena threat and another standoff with congressmen representing Massachusetts' fishing cities.
Jones, removed as director of NOAA law enforcement in April after an investigation found his office was using excessive fines levied on fishermen as a slush fund, "is currently employed by NOAA, and we are considering reassigning him to an appropriate position," the agency said Thursday. It was NOAA's first public acknowledgement of Jones since his replacement around four months ago.
But why Jones is still on the federal payroll, what he is doing now and what an "appropriate position" is for the former head of a scandalized police force, NOAA still won't say.
Despite allegations contained in the inspector general's report of document shredding by law enforcement staff as well as vindictive prosecution, NOAA has said reform of its law enforcement division will not include "re-examining specific cases or data mentioned in the report or looking at the history of our offices."
The policy of not looking back has been questioned by many on the East Coast, including Massachusetts Congressmen Barney Frank and John Tierney, who represent the fishing ports of New Bedford and Gloucester, respectively. They met last week with NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco on a series of fisheries issues days before a scheduled "summit" in Washington on fisheries law enforcement.
Both congressmen Thursday told the Times the meeting did not go well.
"The result was very unsatisfactory," Frank said of Lubchenco's response to his long-standing push for NOAA to address past law enforcement abuses against fishermen, as well as provide relief from lowered catch limits for choke stocks under sector fisheries management.
Tierney and Frank "were extremely frustrated with how NOAA is handling these critical issues," a spokeswoman for Tierney told the Times in an e-mail Thursday.
When NOAA, citing legal concerns, refused to discuss Jones' status, Tierney threatened to subpoena the information, according to accounts of the meeting.
Faced with the possibility of having to discuss Jones' employment at congressional hearings, NOAA confirmed to Frank and Tierney this week that Jones was still on the payroll.
"Apparently the reward for highly questionable actions at NOAA's (office of law enforcement) is a paid vacation," Frank said in a news release announcing the revelation Wednesday.
At the beginning of July, both Frank and Tierney, citing what they saw as a pattern of hostility toward the fishing industry by NOAA, called for Lubchenco to resign or be fired.
Frank later backed off that demand after the White House assured him his concerns would be addressed.
However, after seeing little progress in his latest meeting with Lubchenco, Frank on Thursday said he would bring the issue back to President Obama if things didn't change, possibly with the help of Massachusetts' Senate delegation.
The announcement on Wednesday from Frank, Tierney and North Carolina Republican Congressman Walter Jones that Dale Jones is still a NOAA employee came a day after NOAA concluded its law enforcement summit promising, among other things "transparency and communication."
"Taxpayers pay the salaries of NOAA employees and they have a right to know the truth about Dale Jones," said Walter Jones in the joint statement with Frank and Tierney.
But while Dale Jones has born the brunt of New England's outrage over the abuses a NOAA law enforcement, he remains the only federal employee known to have suffered any consequences from the scandal.
In fact, at Tuesday's law enforcement "summit," all six regional NOAA special agents in charge were present at the Washington event. One was Andrew Cohen, the agent in charge of the Gloucester-based New England division where the inspector general found the overwhelming evidence of abusive enforcement.
It was Cohen who was chastised by a federal judge last summer for trying to close the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction, and reporting it to the media, before a final decision on charges he brought against it has been rendered.
Concerns about the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction case among local lawmakers set in motion the inquiries that brought down Jones.
NOAA spokeswoman Connie Barclay said Cohen and two of the other five agents had been at the summit as observers.
"Since NOAA will be implementing the outcomes of the summit in the future, it is important that our enforcement personnel understand the concerns, ideas, and solutions suggested by our stakeholders," Barclay said in an e-mail.
Patrick Anderson may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3455 or email@example.com.