By Richard Gaines
---- — NOAA has released a video and an essay on the Office of Law Enforcement website touting its value to the nation and the fishing industry by ensuring “a level playing field” — even as the agency continued to suppress a $500,000 addendum to a special judicial master’s report on abuses of the badge carried out against commercial fishermen in Gloucester and across the Northeast.
The 66-case study by Special Master Charles B. Swartwood III was completed and delivered to the office of then Commerce Secretary John Bryson last March, but still has not been made public.
In late September, after Bryson was found unconscious behind the wheel of his car in suburban Los Angeles and resigned from the cabinet, a spokeswoman for Acting Secretary Rebecca Blank said she had asked her staff to “gather more information regarding issues identified” in the 554-page report by Swartwood.
But since then, numerous queries to Blank, Cameron Kerry — general counsel for the department and the brother of U.S. Sen. John Kerry — NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and her chief counsel Lois Schiffer have been ignored.
Congressman John Tierney and Sen.Scott Brown last Friday reacted with fury to the continued suppression of the Swartwood report and the law enforcement video.
Sen. Kerry’s office also reported pressuring the Commerce Department to release the report. A spokesman for Kerry said “we believe” the report will be made public “very soon.”
Yet another series of queries from the Times last week to top officials at Commerce and its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was again ignored.
”The Congressman spoke to the White House (Thursday) for the sole purpose of pressing for the immediate release of Swartwood II and demanding that they – at a bare minimum – provide a hard deadline for when it will be released,” said Tierney’s spokeswoman Karthryn Prael. “This is outrageous.”
“Instead of wasting taxpayer money on an internet video,” Brown said in an email, “NOAA should release the latest Special Master report which taxpayers also financed. I continue to press for its release and for NOAA to come clean right away.”
”Senator Kerry understands deeply just how important this report is, in large measure because it was at his urging that these investigations were initiated,” said Kerry’s spokesman Alec Gerlach. “At his behest, we’ve remained in close and frequent contact with NOAA and the Department of Commerce about its release, as recently as (Friday), and we believe it’ll be released very soon.”
The case studies of law enforcement abuse of fishermen and businesses was commissioned in May 2011 by Bryson’s predecessor, Gary Locke, now ambassador to China after Reps. John Tierney and Barney Frank, among others, argued that many fishermen working waters policed by agents based in the Northeast region, headquartered in Gloucester, had not been heard.
Locke announced the extension of Swartwood’s commission after sending NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco to Gloucester to issue an apology to 11 of the most seriously harmed victims of law enforcement abuse to whom was distributed more than $650,000 in reparations.
The abusive behavior of a cadre of agents and litigators in Gloucester and systemic exploitation of the NOAA law enforcement system was uncovered by the Commerce Department inspector general in 2010 after pressure from Congress and the Massachusetts legislature.
Tierney and Brown last summer also obtained documentation via a Freedom of Information Act request that agents in Seattle had acquired and used for personal pleasure a high end speed boat.
Lubchenco and her chief counsel Schiffer had intended to institute reforms without attempting to right past wrongs against the industry, but Locke vetoed that plan and contracted with JAMS, a judicial services firm, to use Swartwood, a retired federal magistrate and chairman of the Massachusetts Ethics Commission, to study in detail cases that came to the attention of the inspector general’s office.
The new video promoting the NOAA system of law enforcement is imbedded on the NOAA website along with a message from Law Enforcement Director Bruce Buckson. He was hired from the Florida wildlife police system after the scandal uncovered by the inspector general’s multiple reports convinced Lubchenco to move Dale Jones from the chief’s position into one as a fisheries analyst.
Jones was reassigned after Inspector General Todd Zinser testified to Congress that Jones had organized an official document shredding during the active phase of the investigation, authorized the use of fines paid by fishermen to subsidize the acquisition of more vehicles than the department had officers and foreign travel to conventions in exotic locations.
The agents and litigators in Gloucester where the abuses were concentrated were also shifted to other positions. No one was punished or fired — and Jones has kept his annual salary of more than $150,000.
“Many NOAA enforcement officers and agents chose conservation law enforcement over traditional law enforcement because they are passionate about this kind of work,” Buckson said in his essay on the NOAA website. “They know that fair and effective enforcement is vital to managing our nation’s fisheries and integral to protecting marine resources and their habitats. The vast majority of fishermen follow the rules and count on us for help.”
The video echoes that message with images of upstanding fish police officers politely but firmly boarding boats to ensure that “everything is in the log (book)” so that there is “a level playing field for all fishermen.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.