The document shredding undertaken by the then-national director of law enforcement for federal fisheries — previously described by officials as a routine cleanup of paperwork — included evidence related to an investigation of law enforcement practices then underway by the Inspector General's office, according to an internal memo from the investigating officer.
And the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been aware for 10 months of the Inspector General's finding that the effort was designed to conceal evidence from the IG's probe, according to documents obtained by the Times.
Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser wrote to NOAA chief administrator Jane Lubchenco on April 2, 2010, that the document-shredding in October 2010 involved the destruction of "75-80 percent of the files in the office of Dale J. Jones Jr.," then the director of NOAA law enforcement.
The IG wrote that "the shredding implicates that it was done to conceal information from the (inspector general)."
According to Zinser's report, "about six of law enforcement headquarters' 40 employees" contributed files for shredding.
"Such office-wide shredding was not a routine function for the Office of Law Enforcement; rather, the director and deputy director (Mark Spurrier) told us this was the first such an exercise in their 10-plus years with OLE," Zinser wrote.
At the time of the mass shredding, Zinser was four months into a six-month investigation into allegations of "heavy-handed and unfair enforcement activities" against the fishing industry, in Zinser's words.
These complaints, which centered on a decade-long effort to find violations at and close down the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction, were forwarded to Lubchenco by the Massachusetts congressional delegation headed by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry, and including Congressman Barney Frank and John Tierney.
Zinser told Lubchenco that the shredding "occurred in the face of (his) ongoing review of the Office of Law Enforcement.
"... As such, the shredding implicates the appearance of impeding both the review and (ongoing) litigation," Zinser wrote.
However, he added, "we did not find sufficient evidence to establish that the shredding was intended to obstruct our ongoing review of OLE, although it posed an adverse impact to our ongoing review."
Zinser's initial report on his investigation in January found that law enforcement activities emanating from NOAA's Northeast regional office in Gloucester were, at times "unbecoming" a federal government attorney, and gave evidence of vindictive motives through assessing exorbitant fines, up top 500 percent higher than in other regions.
A later report, based on an exhaustive but incomplete forensic audit of the Asset Forfeiture Fund concluded that the fund was used as a group debit account without controls or oversight to purchase a fleet of vehicles larger than the entire force or agents, a luxury speed boat and overseas travel to exotic destinations for conferences.
Since the findings, however, neither Jones nor any of the officials involved in the wrongdoing described in the report have been fired or sanctioned, according to NOAA.
Jones was shifted out of his position as head of law enforcement and assigned to work on the Gulf oil cleanup, while the lawyer cited for unbecoming actions was also reassigned.
The agent in charge of the Gloucester office resigned late last year while NOAA was purportedly investigating whether he broke any rules by using his government issue cell phone to field calls from prospective buyers of his merchandise on eBay.
Repeated calls by members of the Massachusetts congressional investigation for a report on the internal response to the scandal have been rebuffed by Lubchenco and her hierarchy, who have cited the Privacy Act as barring any public reporting.
On Wednesday night, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa was quoted in a report on the administration and law enforcement of the fishing industry by CBS network news chief investigative correspondent as saying, "I want to make sure heads roll."
"You know in a bureaucracy, if heads don't roll, you don't change behavior," added Grassley, an Iowa Republican. Grassley made an apparent reference to the Zinser memo in his interview with CBS News.
The Zinser memo to Lubchenco was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and delivered to the Times Friday. Its contents are certain to further alienate the fishing communities along the Atlantic coast from Lubchenco and the NOAA regulators
In a prepared statement issued Friday, NOAA indicated that the agency "takes its responsibility to preserve records very seriously."
"Dr. Lubchenco sent an e-mail to all NOAA employees reminding them of their duties with respect to the preservation and retention of agency records, and all NOAA Fisheries supervisors were required to complete a training class on records management," the statement indicated. "A review has found that no agency records were inappropriately destroyed.
"We cannot comment on any personnel actions due to the Privacy Act limitations," the report continued. "Certain reports and responses are not publicly released because of these same privacy constraints."
NOAA's stand, however, is not sitting well with fishing industry supporters.
Fishing interests in the southeast and along the Gulf coast have organized a mass rally against NOAA policies set for next Friday in St. Petersburg, Fla. The protesters — like those in the aggrieved fishing communities of Gloucester, New Bedford and other New England and Middle Atlantic ports — see Lubcheocn and her hierarchy at NOAA as representing a basic anti-fishing ideology.
She came to office in 2009 committed to re-engineering the traditional fishing industry management system into one based on creating a commodities market through the buying, selling and trading of fishermen's "shares" of a total allowable catch for each fish stock.
The implementation of catch shares in New England, further complicated by tight, government-set catch limits, has sparked a fierce resistance headed by Gov. Deval Patrick and congressmen Barney Frank and John Tierney, who have joined a lawsuit filed by the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford with co-plaintiffs from Maine to North Carolina.
Frank, Tierney and Rep.Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, last year called for Obama to replace Lubchenco, though Frank later backed off that demand. Frank, however, has said the response from the White House to the grievances of the fishing industry have place his relationship with the White House in jeopardy.
The CBS news report Wednesday night provided a full executive summary of the issues that have piled on each other since Obama picked Lubchenco to head NOAA. She came committed to imposing catch shares, which have an unbroken history of creating hyperconsolidation, eliminating jobs and concentration equity in the fisheries in the hands of a small number of the biggest operations.
The first nine months of catch shares in New England have followed that pattern, bringing denunciation from the ports and their elected representatives, who see the policies as destroying small businesses.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, or at email@example.com.