Americans for Forfeiture Reform has been calling for regime change at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for some time. The latest report from the Commerce Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reiterates that need.
NOAA was tasked with reforming the administration and oversight of its troubled Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF). It asserted “that all corrective actions are 100 percent complete.” What does “100% complete” look like to NOAA?
- Status: NOAA developed procedures to monitor AFF transactions associated with all enforcement activities except those associated with asset seizure. It is not yet routinely monitoring the AFF deposit account, which contains the proceeds from the sales of assets seized by Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) agents.
- Status: NOAA trained NMFS Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on the proper approval of AFF disbursements. However, OLE, GCEL, and NMFS OMB staffs were not trained on the revised AFF record-retention policies.
- Status: NOAA researched and documented an approach for moving all legacy AFF financial data to a new fund code for the AFF, in order to segregate AFF activity from other NOAA transactions beginning in FY 2011. However, NOAA did not identify balances on hand at September 30, 2010, associated with Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan and Pacific Insular violations prior to transferring the data into the new AFF fund code.
- Status: NOAA did not review the entire data set described in our July 2010 report. NOAA reviewed only 41 of the 4,000 potential split purchases and none of the 1,200 potential duplicate purchases identified in our July 2010 report. In addition, although NOAA informed all applicable OLE and GCEL personnel that credit card training was required, NOAA did not establish a process to monitor and ensure that all applicable employees have taken the required annual training.
This is from a department that can’t document what happened to some $38-40 million of the $96 million that went into their Asset Forfeiture Fund. This a government agency that destroyed 75-80% of relevant documents during an ongoing OIG investigation, via a “shredding party,” at the behest of a senior department leader, Dale Jones Jr. They have tolerated duplicate, undocumented, and unexplained expenses for reimbursement, including one employee who apparently submitted his expenses twice every month. NOAA even purchased a trip, to Kuala Lumpur, for at least one Administrative Law Judge responsible for impartially ruling on the legality of NOAA forfeitures.
The Senate and the House of Representatives have held fiery hearings on NOAA. Senior staff, including chief NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, have been hauled before congress. We have read scathing Inspector General and Special Master reports. Congressman have repeatedly called for terminations.
There is more criticism.. but NOAA is still a rogue agency. Employees, who allegedly participated in these acts of gross malfeasance, retain employment with NOAA. NOAA is still submitting assertions “that all corrective actions are 100 percent complete.”
Ignoring 3,969 of the identified 4,000 potential split purchases and 1,200 of the 1,200 potential duplicate purchases (from an agency that can’t account for 40% of its Asset Forfeiture Fund) demonstrates that NOAA has no intention of reforming its behavior. NOAA refuses to institute substantive oversight on the asset seizure account. A lack of oversight over asset forfeitures, where incentives for perverse behavior are strongest, is at the heart of this mess. NOAA does not and will not take this seriously.
President Obama has shown no interest in resolving this crisis. It is up to Congress. This is a rare bipartisan opportunity and one that is easy to get behind. There isn’t a vocal constituency for government malfeasance. Legislators, as ideologically distant as Senator Chuck Grassley and Congressman Barney Frank, have called for the termination of NOAA Administrator, Jane Lubchenco.
Congress has power. It can deny funding. It can stipulate that funding will only be spent on certain things and only if certain conditions are met. Continuing funding for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement and their misuse of the Asset Forfeiture Fund is perpetuating this malfeasance.
Congress should remove any law enforcement functions from NOAA and fund NOAA’s code enforcement elsewhere. That elsewhere shouldn’t draw incentives from how much they seize. NOAA hasn’t shown any particular talent for law enforcement. They ignore hiring protocols for special law enforcement agents. They mismanage asset forfeiture funds. They conduct armed paramilitary raids for alleged clerical errors on coral purchases and for allegedly being over a catch share limits. That isn’t the America that we want to live in. It’s bad for NOAA, too. It discredits the entire agency.
Law enforcement isn’t NOAA’s purpose. NOAA is a science and exploration agency. They trace their roots back to Thomas Jefferson’s 1807 commission of the Survey of the Coast. They have a rich, accomplished history. They have helped foster our economy and they’ve proven invaluable over their existence. Congress should end this failed experiment.
Congress should, also, draw a lesson from NOAA. Not every government agency needs their own SWAT team.