Rather than “undercover” work, a $300,787 luxury power boat purchased with money from the asset forfeiture fund was used mainly as a pleasure boat for “booze cruise” excursions by NOAA fisheries agents in the Pacific Northwest, according to Sen. Scott Brown.
Brown, R-Mass., took to the Senate floor Friday to blast National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agents for purchasing the boat in an inappropriate process, almost never using it for its intended “undercover” surveillance of whale watching, using it instead for dinner cruises agents called “sea trials,” expensing those trips to the government and “lying about it” to the Inspector General’s Office.
Brown called on President Barack Obama to fire NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, noting that no one has been disciplined or fired over the issue of the boat.
“What does it take to get fired from NOAA?” Brown demanded, rattling off a list of the agency’s controversies during the past two or three years, including a “shredding party” by the chief of law enforcement while his office was under investigation.
Brown said the issue of the boat is made more egregious by the fact that the money for it came from a fund built up with fines levied against fishermen, sometimes wrongly, sometimes so steep that the fishermen were put out of business.
The heavily redacted Inspector General’s Office report, written in July 2011, was made public by Brown today after a Freedom of Information Act request. While redacting the names of those involved, the report goes into great detail about how agents and their relatives used the 35-foot, triple-engined Boston Whaler Conquest to cruise Puget Sound and dock at restaurants.
The inspector general’s findings were forwarded to the District of Maryland’s Office of the U.S. Attorney. (NOAA has its headquarters in Maryland.) But that office recommended administrative sanctions and reimbursement for those involved, not criminal prosecution.
NOAA responded by taking the vessel out of service and moving to “disposition” it, establish a review process for vessel acquisitions, and retraining personnel. No mention was made about discipline or sanctions for those involved.
A prepared statement from NOAA on Friday reiterated what was in a November 2011 memo from the inspector general to the Commerce Department’s senior acquisition executive. It lists the rules changes and the “surplussing” of the boat, but it is silent on discipline for those involved and on the idea that Lubchenco should resign.
NOAA still owns the boat, which is docked in Puget Sound at a cost of $400 a month.
Lubchenco tightened restrictions on the use of the asset forfeiture fund after it was disclosed nearly two years ago that it had been freely used to pay for travel, vehicles and the luxury boat. But the inspector general concluded that even under the old rules, the boat’s purchase was unethical and improper and exposed the agency to legal liability.
In the report, the inspector general writes: “(Name redacted) violated agency policy and ethical standards by operating the UC (undercover) vessel with his wife and/or friends aboard on at least three occasions in the summer of 2008, each of which involved dockside restaurant destinations during the workweek.
“He further violated agency policy by failing to record his approximately 40 hours of UC vessel operations during that period. In addition, he allowed the parents of a subordinate agent aboard another Office of Law Enforcement boat while underway after the UC experienced engine failure. In violation of policy and ethical standards, (his) parents were present for at least one boarding of a whale-watching vessel and a trip across Puget Sound to a restaurant.”
In turn, the agent gave an explanation that the inspector general found to be incredible. “Our investigation found these assertions to be rationalizations lacking validity and candor,” said the report.
The report said that one agent interfered with the investigation by talking about his interview to another individual who had not yet been questioned.
After his Senate speech, Brown told The Standard-Times he continues to be frustrated with NOAA’s slowness in complying with his requests for documents in mid-2011. NOAA has supplied about 80 percent to date, he said.