By Richard Gaines
— Using money from fines paid by fishermen, the NOAA law enforcement office in Seattle manipulated procurement procedures to acquire a luxury undercover cabin boat that was used 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.
According to the report, More than $300,000 was taken from the Asset Forfeiture Fund, made up of fines paid by fishermen for violations of the Manguson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, to pay for the 35-foot Boston Whaler in 2008, and another $9,400 was charged to the forfeiture fund for moorage, fuel and maintenance.
The report drew immediate reaction today in Congress, where Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown briefed the Senate saying, “NOAA had no reasonable official use for this boat.”
"The sad truth is,” Brown said, “it was a fishermen funded party boat for bureaucrats.”
The abuse of the fund to acquire the boat was first documented publicly in a July 2010 report by Inspector General Todd 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.
The requesting members, Brown and Congressman Rep. John Tierney, who represents Cape Ann, released the 34-page report to the Times late Thursday. The initial mention of the boat’s purchase as an example of abuse of the AFF did not indicate which region of NOAA law enforcement had been responsible.
“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.
“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 all expenditures from the AFF,” Tierney added.
In his speech today on the Senate floor, 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?”
The IG began his investigation of law enforcement abuses in June 2010 after persistent complaints emanating from excesses traced to agents and litigators in the Northeast regional office here in Gloucester. The legislative leadership, then the congressional delegation petitioned NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco to authorize the probe.
The new report was heavily redacted to protect the identity of the principals at the Seattle regional office who were involved in the saga of the undercover pleasure boat.
Chapter headings in the report 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 what patrol and trip to Friday Harbor restaurant with subordinate agent’s parents aboard.”
The IG’s report detailed countless violations of procurement procedures as well as “dishonest conduct prejudicial to the government, conduct demonstrating untrustworthiness or unreliability.”
What, if any, action has been taken against anyone involved in the abuses could not be deduced from the redacted report.
However, it 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 headquarters are in Silver Spring, Md.
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Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.