Congressman Barney Frank and colleagues on both sides of the aisle Thursday filed legislation to reform the scandalized NOAA Asset Forfeiture Fund, which has been used to finance law enforcement operations and pay judges.
U.S. Rep. John Tierney, whose district includes Gloucester and all of Cape Ann, is a co-sponsor of the legislation — which looks to convert the fund, built on the fines and other forfeitures paid by fishermen and related businesses, into a long-term revenue stream for scientific research.
The bill, according to Frank, is compatible with — and incorporates elements of — legislation previously filed by both of Massachusetts' U.S. senators, Democrat John Kerry and Republican Scott Brown.
"This bill will convert the Asset Forfeiture Fund from an incentive to mistreat fishermen into a resource for improving the quality of fishing by funding regional fisheries research," Frank said in a statement released with the bill.
The bill was endorsed by the group Americans for Forfeiture Reform.
A Newton Democrat who represents New Bedford — the nation's No. 1 fishing port in value of landings — Frank filed the bill with 12 colleagues on the day he was the subject of a lengthy report in The New York Times on his efforts to protect the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act from efforts at weakening and watering it down. That measure is a more energetic regulatory system on Wall Street and banking,
Switching gears and reversing his role — in fisheries he is pressing to reduce what he considers onerous over-regulation — Frank used a radio interview Thursday morning to compare the mistreatment of the fishing industry with civil rights violations of groups that engendered widespread support.
"After years of fishermen here in New Bedford and Gloucester complaining about unfairness and being dismissed by the environmentalists, I have to say I'm pleased to get some traction here," he said in a lengthy interview on New Bedford's WBSM (1420 AM).
"I've been very critical and argued with a lot of my liberal friends (that) if immigrants or political protesters or members of particular racial minority had been treated by law enforcement as badly or arbitrarily as fishermen, they'd all be up in arms," he said,
Frank said that, since the findings of the Commerce Department inspector general Todd Zinser and a special judicial master validated the complaints of the industry in a series of reports over the past two years, support for the industry has been building, and he said the time was right to leverage it to adjust the approach to fisheries regulation taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The bill would use funds in the Asset Forfeiture Fund now and collected by Sept. 30 — the end of the federal fiscal cycle — to reimburse the legal fees of the victims of NOAA law enforcement misconduct who were singled out by Commerce Department Secretary Gary Locke for reparations.
Whatever remains after reimbursing legal fees of the 13 victims would be split between NOAA and the states on an 80/20 ratio, with NOAA required to use the money for "high priority stock assessment" while the states would be required to use its share for research and other purposes outlined in the bill.
The bill also permanently removes the agency's incentive to seek higher fines by mandating that all future Asset Forfeiture Fund fines collected beginning Oct. 1 be used solely for state research and it also provides a small stream of funding for local research projects.
In the radio interview, Frank said this provision should help the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth's School for Marine Science and Technology replace earmark funding on which it has depended, now that Congress has barred the practice.
Frank also said that, in every instance in which SMAST clashed with the NOAA Science Center, the independent school of science has been proved more accurate.
The final provision of the bill requires NOAA to rotate their administrative law judges at least every five years to avoid the creation of cozy relationships.
The report last spring of Special Judicial Master Charles B. Swartwood III ignited a fierce controversy with the conclusion that the independence of a Coast Guard administrative law judge was called into question on a case which claimed heavy fines from a New Bedford scalloper.
Swartwood also concluded that a redacted portion of a mysterious email in the report on the case by Inspector General Todd Zinser was "credible evidence that money was NOAA's motivating objective in this case."
The administrative law judge ripped Swartwood and wrote what amounted to a lengthy rebuttal into a pending, unrelated case; meanwhile, the professional association of federal law enforcers and the union representing NOAA litigators issued protests the IG and Swartwood's report and complained that NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco had scapegoated the agents and lawyers.
In a congressional atmosphere of increasing partisanship, Frank went out of his way on the radio show, the "Saving Seafood Hour" with Bob Vanasse, to acknowledge the contribution sto the fishermen's cause of Republicans in what has evolved into a fully bipartisan, bicameral coalition that stretches from Florida to Maine.
Previously, Frank endorsed Brown's bill to remove the Asset Forfeiture Fund from the Commerce Department placing it in the Treasury Department, where it would be used to finance the operations of federal regional fishery management councils and the expenses of fishermen related to regulatory requirements.
Among Republicans along with Brown in the coalition, Frank identified U.S., Reps. Walter Jones of North Carolina and Frank Guinta of New Hampshire.
Other co-sponsors of the bill are Congressmen Ed Markey, Steve Lynch, James McGovern and Bill Keating of Massachusetts, Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud of Maine, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, Joe Courtney of Connecticut and Frank Pallone of New Jersey.
"It is indisputable that the current Asset Forfeiture Fund aystem lends itself to corruption, a lack of transparency and responsibility, and holds a clear conflict of interest," Tierney said in a prepared statement. "This legislation is the necessary remedy for these pervasive problems and will ensure our fishermen are treated with the fairness and respect they deserve when it comes to enforcement matters.
"We applaud this step to root out the perverse incentives that have plagued NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement, inject industry cooperation, and reimburse those harmed by overzealous enforcement," said Scott Meier, policy director for Americans for Forfeiture Reform.
But Eapen Thampy, executive director of the organization, said much work remains to be done.
"Seizures can still happen before charges are filed, and victims will still face a manifestly unjust legal process where they have to prove the innocence of their property," he said.
"Congress should consider bolstering the due process protections afforded victims and force the government to prove a crime committed before property is taken," Thampy added.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.