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This Monday, June 20th, I attended a hearing of the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security  at Boston’s famed Faneuil Hall.  The topic was the predatory law enforcement agency of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Agency and the abuses of the asset forfeiture fund they controlled. In a nutshell, NOAA law enforcement victimized fishermen with excessively punitive and arbitrary enforcement that included:

  • Paramilitary raids on boats for suspected violations of minor offenses
  • Using the threat of more punitive judicial hearings to leverage settlements of fines and forfeitures (aka extortion)
  • Excessive fines and forfeitures (for instance, one scalloper was fined $14,000 for being over the catch limit by one scallop)
  • Paying judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement directly from forfeited funds

In the last five years, this Soviet American law enforcement agency brought in $100 million. Of that, $92 million has been spent, with half of that still unaccounted for after at least 2 audits and an *estimated* balance just under $8 million. Money was spent on luxury SUVs, boats, and exorbitant international travel. Purchases often did not have to be authorized, reimbursement forms were routinely submitted multiple times for duplicate reimbursment, and Eric Schwaab, the NOAA Assistant Administrator, had to note under questioning that “the number of credit cards had been restricted” since the scandal broke and Congressional attention came to bear.

Senator Tom Carper asked at one point “What does it take to get fired at NOAA?” in a series of questioning directed at the fate of Dale Jones, the former head of NOAA fisheries law enforcement for the past decade. You might remember Dale Jones, who held a paper shredding party in his office in November 2009 after the US Commerce Department’s Inspector General began asking questions about the conduct of NOAA law enforcement. It is estimated that Jones shredded 70-80% of the papers that had been requested as part of the Inspector General’s investigation. Jones is still, amazingly, employed at NOAA; he received a lateral transfer to a position in the Gulf of Mexico and a pay cut of roughly $5,000.

Later this week I’ll upload video and pictures I took of the hearings, and also expect a more substantial discussion of the hearings and NOAA forfeiture abuse from AFR policy analyst Scott Meiner, who accompanied me to this hearing.

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