GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

February 18, 2012

NOAA agents used boat purchased with fines from fishermen for fun

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

Using money from fines paid by fishermen, the NOAA law enforcement office in Seattle evaded procurement procedures to acquire a luxury undercover cabin boat that was used, misused and abused as a pleasure craft by unidentified personnel — including at least one agent, his wife and friends — according to a new, detailed report from the U.S. Commerce Department's inspector general.

The report was obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act by Massachusetts lawmakers U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and Congressman John Tierney.

The IG's report found that more than $300,000 was taken from the Asset Forfeiture Fund — built upon fines paid by fishermen for violations of the Manguson-Stevens, Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection acts — to pay for the 35-foot Boston Whaler in 2008, while another $9,400 was charged to the forfeiture fund for moorage, fuel and maintenance.

The report states that an individual or individuals "violated agency policy and ethical standards" by using the boat for partying and pleasure cruises around Puget Sound. The case was instigated by a whistleblower, the inspector general's report states.

The new report contains several examples of abuse and even NOAA fumbling, suggested by headings in the report that include:

Engine failure (explosion) attributable to operator error (Aug. 22, 2008).

"Wife and friend aboard for initial launch, running out of fuel in canal," and "trip across Puget Sound to Remerton restaurant (June 12, 2008)."

"Trip to Poulsbo restaurant and excursion with friends to Gig Harbor restaurant (Aug. 5, 2008)."

"Stranded with wife in Puget Sound en route to restaurant (Aug. 8, 2008)."

"Following undercover vessel engine failure en route to Blaine restaurant, substitute Office of Law Enforcement marked vessel used for patrol and trip to Friday Harbor restaurant with subordinate agent's parents aboard."

The IG's report also details countless violations of procurement procedures as well as "dishonest conduct prejudicial to the government, conduct demonstrating untrustworthiness or unreliability."

The heavily redacted report made it impossible to identify who was implicated in the questionable acquisition and use of the boat, but the NOAA law enforcement website lists three agents in the Seattle office: agent-in-charge Vicki Nomura, and deputies Bill Giles and Brad Vinish.

The IG did note that "on May 31, 2011, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the district of Maryland declined criminal prosecution of (the unidentified agent) in favor of administrative remedies."

NOAA's national headquarters are in Silver Spring, Md.

Nomura on Friday referred questions to NOAA law enforcement headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. Calls to Vinish were referred to Giles' voice mail and were not returned.

Efforts to reach Vinish by email were redirected to Nomura's account.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a statement Friday saying the Privacy Act barred discussion of any personnel records.

The statement added that, because the incident did not meet the "spirit" of federal procurement requirements, "NOAA prohibited any further use of the vessel and is in the process of surplussing it, consistent with government guidelines."

Even so, according to the initial report by the IG on abuses of the Asset Forfeiture Fund, issued in July 2010, the boat's purchase was approved by the then-director of NOAA law enforcement, Dale J. Jones Jr.

Jones remains employed at NOAA at a salary of more than $155,000 a year, but was shifted out of law enforcement in April 2010 under pressure from members of Congress after IG Todd Zinser testified that Jones had shredded countless files in his office before the end of the IG's investigation.

Now serving as a fisheries analyst, Jones was briefly appointed to manage public access to digital files at NOAA last month, but NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco negated the assignment after his perceived promotion was reported by the Times.

The IG's report was followed Friday by a new round of congressional condemnation of NOAA leadership.

Brown, a Republican, briefed the Senate on Friday, saying, "NOAA had no reasonable official use for this boat. The sad truth is it was a fishermen-funded party boat for bureaucrats.

Brown noted that no one had been brought to account for the misuse of government property, and reiterated the question he raised during a Senate Commerce Committee subcommittee hearing in Boston last spring: "What does it take to get fired at NOAA?"

Tierney also expressed outrage at the report's findings.

"Not only should this luxury vessel never have been purchased by NOAA," Tierney said, "but today we learn that it was used for joyrides during the workweek, and employees were inappropriately reimbursed for fuel and other costs from the Asset Forfeiture Fund — essentially right from the pockets of our fishermen."

The abuse of the fund to acquire the boat was first documented publicly in a July 2010 report by Zinser that focused heavily on the excessive fines and other NOAA enforcement abuses carried out against fishermen and waterfront businesses in Gloucester and around the Northeast.

But details of the purchase and misuse of the boat were only released to members of Congress this week after the filing of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests.

"What makes this particularly relevant is that the recent IG report detailed that NOAA still lacks appropriate controls over the Asset Forfeiture Fund," Tierney added. "So taxpayers are left to wonder if this kind of abuse and misuse of funds is still occurring.

"I again call for an immediate freeze on all expenditures from the AFF," Tierney added.

The Inspector General began his investigation of law enforcement abuses in June 2010 after persistent complaints arising from excesses traced to agents and litigators in NOAA's Northeast regional office here in Gloucester. The state legislative leadership, then the Massachusetts congressional delegation, petitioned Lubchenco to authorize the probe, and she ultimately complied.

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