June 21, 2011
BOSTON — A group of Massachusetts’ lawmakers is coming down hard on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency at the center of a contentious debate over regional fishing rights and the subject of a damning Commerce Department investigation last year.
During a Congressional hearing on the agency held in Boston on Tuesday, Rep. John Tierney called for the resignation of NOAA’s chief, Jane Lubchenco. He said the agency failed to respond adequately to reports of abuses by its staff.
"I don’t see the empathy that ought to be there, I don’t see the understanding. And the real commitment to make sure that their positions are understood and factored into any decisions that are made," Tierney said.
Tierney joins a growing chorus of lawmakers, including Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, who say that Lubchenco failed to respond to reports of abuses at NOAA quickly enough.
The investigation, by the U.S. Commerce Department’s Inspector General, found NOAA was charging fishermen outlandish fines for small offenses. The money then went into a NOAA fund with no oversight. It was used by regulators to pay for fishing conferences in exotic locations such as Australia, Malaysia and Norway. It also purchased a $300,000 fishing boat used by government employees for fishing trips.
The Inspector General also found the agency’s Law Enforcement Director, Dale Jones, shredded garbage bags full of documents in the middle of the investigation.
U.S. Sen. Scott Brown asked NOAA’s assistant fisheries director, Eric Schwaab, about Jones’ current whereabouts, but Schwaab refused to comment. He has said Jones was removed from his job, but according to CBS news, Schwaab remains an analyst still making a six-figure salary.
Schwaab also says the agency is addressing past abuses by making a number of financial reforms. Sen. Brown applauded these actions, but many fishermen say they ring hollow when the perpetrators remain unpunished.
Brown said the problem at NOAA goes deeper than what was uncovered in that investigation alone.
"NOAA's history of overzealous enforcement in the New England Fishery has come at the cost of the fishermen’s' trust and their livelihood. And many of them tell me that the folks in Washington regard them as criminals instead of a legitimate and valued regulated industry," Brown said.
In May, the Commerce Secretary ordered the agency to return tens of thousands of dollars in fines to fishermen. The government is still investigating if funds collected through fines are being used properly.