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com, Gloucester, MA
August 3, 2010

Editorial: Need for criminal probe of NOAA agents' excesses


The campaign by Gloucester's Statehouse delegation calling for a special

federal prosecutor to investigate possible criminal actions by federal
fisheries enforcement agents is welcome.

It is also overdue.

But the most maddening thing about it is that state Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-
Gloucester, and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, have to
campaign for something like this at all. The findings by Commerce
Department Inspector General Todd Zinser in a series of reports this year
have provided more than enough evidence for Jane Lubchenco, head of the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to launch a criminal probe
without prodding from anyone.

In a report released last February, Zinser cited multiple instances of

regulatory misconduct by the NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service
fishing regulators. He confirmed complaints by fishermen and the Gloucester
Seafood Display Auction that armed NOAA enforcement agents, acting like
thugs, had abused their authority with vindictive and disproportionate
enforcement of the New England fleet, treating fishermen like criminals and
levying huge fines for minor civil infractions.

Last month, Zinser reported on the blatant abuse of the Asset Forfeiture
Fund by NOAA agents. He found that 62 percent of transactions for the fund
lacked some level of documentation, while 27 percent lacked any record of

But sketchy or nonexistent record keeping was the least of the problems.
Zinser said NOAA had reported a balance of $8.4 million in the fund, when it
actually had $47 million, and had taken in $96 million over the past five
years. That money had been spent on things such as foreign travel that was
unrelated to enforcement cases, more cars than there were agents and 22
vessels, including a "luxurious" $300,000 undercover boat.
In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Tarr and Ferrante were only
stating the obvious when they wrote that the use of the fund was in
"contravention of clearly statutory limits," and added that its availability to
NOAA agents to buy virtually anything they wanted without oversight, "has
created perverse incentives to encourage the imposition of unjust fines and
impoundments against fishermen...."

Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk has endorsed the call for a special prosecutor,
saying the survival of the fishing community depends in part on "the
elimination of heavy handed enforcement tactics."

But the fact that this kind of public urging is necessary is further proof that
Lubchenco was not the least bit serious when she said more than a year ago
that she intended to heal the "dysfunctional relationship" between fishermen
and the agents who enforce fishing regulations.

Indeed, Lubchenco is so willfully blind to the rot within her own agency that a
one-day "summit" she convened Tuesday in Washington, D.C., did not have
that as its focus. Instead, it was all about "developing forward-looking
strategies to advance ... enforcement."

This takes tone deaf to a whole new level. Enforcement has been advanced
to the point of abuse, for years. No wonder Congressmen Barney Frank and
John Tierney, who represent the fishing ports of New Bedford and Gloucester
respectively, have called for President Obama to fire Lubchenco. The
president, however, seems equally tone deaf, even to loyal members of his
own party.

Both Obama and Lubchenco have paid plenty of lip service to transparency.
It is time for them to put their words into action. The obvious misconduct of
rogue agents within NOAA makes the need for a criminal investigation