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Victims of NOAA forfeiture abuse: New Beford fishermen

On July 21, 2010, in federal, by Eapen Thampy

From Jonathan Hemmerdinger:

The money contributed, at least in part, to NOAA’s so-called asset forfeiture fund, which houses commercial fishing penalties and forfeitures of property, which can include seized fish or fishing vessels. The fund also includes money from criminal case settlements prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

NOAA has been under fire since early July, when the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General released a report saying NOAA lacks transparency and accountability in the administration of the fund.

The report also found that NOAA’s enforcement and prosecution divisions are funded heavily–even primarily–with forfeiture funds.

Under law, NOAA may use forfeiture funds to pay expenses “directly related” to investigations, including equipment purchases. But the report found the agency used the funds for seemingly unrelated and unauthorized expenses.

Forfeiture funds were used to purchase some 200 vehicles at a cost of $4.6 million, and enforcement boats, including a $300,000 undercover vessel, the report said.

The agency also spent some $580,000 of forfeiture funds on international travel to 40 destinations, including $109,000 on a fisheries enforcement training workshop in Norway in 2008.

In addition, the report found that NOAA’s Office of General Counsel for Enforcement and Litigation “assumes that virtually all (approximately 99 percent) of its operating costs” are reimbursable by forfeited funds. The division’s other funding source, appropriations, contribute less than $1,000 to GCEL’s operating budget, excluding salaries.

GCEL is the NOAA division tasked with prosecuting “civil penalty cases, permit sanctions and administrative forfeitures,” according to the agency’s website.

Likewise, the report said NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement “does not have a formal budget for its use of” forfeiture funds. OLE divisions, which recieve only a portion of operating costs from appropriations, “plan for wide use of AFF monies,” said the report.

He continues:

Pamela Lafreniere, a New Bedford, Mass., attorney who represents commercial fishermen from Maine to Florida, said the inspector general report brings a “certain amount of vindication” to many of her clients.

“They knew they were right all along. Penalties were excessive and unjustified in most instances. [We] have been saying this for years,” she said.

Lafreniere said NOAA’s fines have been inconsistent, ever for similar offenses. First-time fines for gear violations, for instance, range from $5,000 to $80,000, according to NOAA’s penalty of schedules.

Penalty cases are prosecuted by the Office of General Counsel for Enforcement and Litigation–the division that “assumes” nearly all it’s costs are reimburseable with forfeiture funds, according to the report.

I actually spoke to a fisherman in New Beford last Thursday who was fined $14,000 for being over the catch limit by ONE scallop. Stories like these are all too common, unfortunately, and hopefully KMPG’s audit will spur real reform of forfeiture provisions in US law.

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