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Update on the NOAA asset forfeiture scandal

On January 28, 2011, in federal, by Eapen Thampy

The following editorial was published in Massachusetts’ Gloucester Times on January 23rd:

A full year after the release of the preliminary report from the office of Department of Commerce Inspector General Todd Zinser, there are tons of serious questions still hovering over NOAA law enforcement’s oppressive dealings with fishermen and the fishing industry.

Yet one answer that seemed clear within days after the January 2010 release of Zinser’s findings is even more obvious today.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has no interest whatsoever in reforming its vindictive regulation and enforcement oversight of the commercial fishing industry, and bringing to justice those who shamed the agency and any sense of American justice.

And the sooner that members of Congress — especially those who represent home states to the commercial fishing industry — realize that, the better.

NOAA is not about confronting and dealing with misconduct and corruption. It is about protecting it. It is not about transparency. It is about covering things up.

It is not about fairness and complying with its own federal statutes — balancing the needs of an industry with those of the environment, as required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

And this rogue arm of the Obama administration — which absurdly sits within the Department of Commerce — is most of all not about jobs. It is about pushing people out of work to further an environmental agenda aimed at steering control an indigenous U.S. industry still built on the backs of family-owned independent businesses into fewer and larger corporate hands.

How else is there to explain that, one year after a litany of scathing findings from Zinser’s initial report, nobody responsible for this scandal has been penalized in any meaningful way?

How else to explain NOAA head Jane Lubchenco arranging for soft landings for the worst offenders — even while telling Congress, “I own the problem, and I intend to fix it.”

It is time — past time — for the region’s congressional delegation, including U.S. Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown, along with Congressmen John Tierney and Barney Frank, to call for an independent criminal investigation into Zinser’s findings.

Zinser reported wildly disproportionate treatment of New England fishermen, extensive misuse of millions of dollars of an asset forfeiture fund, document shredding and an attempt to shut down the Gloucester Seafood Display auction that even included an unauthorized, after-hours forced entry into the auction that was documented by Gloucester Police.

Yet, after Zinser issued his initial findings, Dale Jones Jr., the former director of fisheries enforcement in New England, was kept on the job for months. When he was finally deposed in April, NOAA tried to do it secretly. Finally, under pressure from Congress, Lubchenco announced that Jones had been reassigned as a fisheries program specialist, a job that comes with a salary almost as good as his previous one — $155,000.

As Frank put it at the time, “Apparently the reward for highly questionable actions (at NOAA) is a paid vacation.”

Jones is hardly alone. Charles Juliand, the senior attorney for enforcement and litigation in NOAA’s Gloucester-based Northeast Division, was reassigned to work on matters related to the Gulf oil spill — a move that must inspire all sorts of confidence among those who truly care about the environment.

And then there’s Andrew Cohen, the former National Marine Fisheries Service agent in charge of Northeast law enforcement, who’s obscene enforcement tactics at one point even drew a harsh rebuke from a federal judge — yet seem just one with Lubchenco and the Obama administration itself.

It was Cohen who once reportedly bragged that he and his crew of federal fisheries thugs were accountable to no one. Well, it looks like he was right.

This blatant obfuscation and disrespect shown everyone from Congress to Gloucester’s fish piers is coming from the top. Lubchenco has no intention of making changes or being transparent to the public that pays her and her agency. She won’t, unless Congress forces the issue with the hiring of an independent criminal — not administrative — prosecutor this case has needed from the start.

It has been a year, and Lubchenco and her minions have had more than enough time to act.

She hasn’t. Congress must — now.

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