The Obama administration has promised Congress a classified briefing to answer questions that have dogged NOAA since an inspector general's investigation found in 2010 that federal fisheries law enforcement agents and litigators levied excessive fines and carried out other abuses against targeted fishing businesses.
The commitment was made by NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco during her testimony on Oct. 3 before a Senate Commerce Committee subcommittee field hearing at the State House in Boston that was organized by Sen. John Kerry.
She said she was passing onto the committee a decision by the chief counsel for the Department of Commerce — Cameron Kerry, Sen. Kerry's brother.
The Times has been unable to learn details of the planned briefing.
But on Oct. 5, two days after Lubchenco made the offer, state Attorney General Martha Coakley took her up on it and asked to be briefed under the same conditions.
Although Lubchenco told the subcommittee that "people involved have been held accountable," she did not indicate whether any law enforcers or litigators had been disciplined or fired since the first report of Inspector General Todd Zinser, who was sitting in the audience during the entire 2 1/2-hour hearing.
In issuing an apology and making reparations to 11 victimized businesses last May, then-Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said no NOAA employee had been punished.
Locke, now the ambassador to China, explained that the investigations, by the inspector general and a special judicial master, had found a "systemic failing" that led to a decision against punishing any of the agents, prosecutors or other National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials.
The longtime director of law enforcement, Dale J. Jones Jr., and his top leadership were reassigned — as were agents and ligitators in Gloucester, where the abuses were concentrated out of NOAA's Northeast regional headquarters in Blackburn Industrial Park. Fines levied in cases made out of the Northeast regional office here in Gloucester were up to 500 percent higher than those in other fisheries across the country, according to Zinser's written reports.
Members of the congressional delegation have been exasperated by the dearth of apparent action, and clear information.
"The lack of trust is foremost in Gloucester," said Congressman John Tierney. "It would have gone a long way to alleviate the mistrust if there had been a report on what happened to the people who are still pulling down $155,000 in taxpayers' money" — an allusion to Jones, who was making roughly that amount before his transfer out of law enforcement.
"We can't get an answer," Tierney added.
At a June Senate subcommittee hearing in Boston organized by Sen. Scott Brown with the assistance of Sen. Tom Caper, a Delaware Democrat, Brown famously asked, "What does it take to get fired at NOAA?"
Lubchenco told the Kerry hearing panel that the federal personnel law and the U.S. Privacy Act prevented any public discussion of the details in individual cases, but in the classified briefing that would be arranged, more candid discussion would be possible.
Attorney General Coakley, meanwhile, has joined the effort to get answers from the Commerce Department.
She has exchanged letters with Cameron Kerry, who referred her to archives of previously published documents — including the inspector general's and special judicial master's investigative reports and NOAA public relations documents with outlines of actions taken by the administration.
In responses, Coakley noted Lubchenco's promise to the Senate subcommittee on Oct. 3 and said she was requesting a briefing on the status of disciplinary action against NOAA agents and lawyers.
"Our office was aware of the publicly available documents that you cited in your response of (Sept. 30) and agrees that they provide considerable information," Coakley wrote. "In fact, it was our review of many of those documents that led to our concerns about your department's response to NOAA's overzealous actions in the first place.
"We feel strongly that these documents raise more questions than they answer," she added.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.