By Richard Gaines
---- — The Commerce Department Inspector General’s annual report for 2012 spotlights a “growth of complaints” made via the agency’s hotline “related to NOAA,” mostly involving “mismanagement or minor misconduct,” and implies clearly that NOAA officials are showing insufficient interest in resolving these problems.
Not all the problems alluded to involve NOAA, but complaints about NOAA increased faster than any other agency in the Department of Commerce in the past fiscal year, the report notes.
Issued under the signature of Inspector General Todd Zinser, the report to the office of the acting secretary of commerce, Rebecca Blank, entitled “Top Management Challenges Facing the Department of Commerce,” also describes what has been a year-long review of “rulemaking” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its policy arm, the New England Fishery Management Council.
Zinser began his probe into NOAA’s and the council’s rulemaking last January at the request of U.S. Rep. John Tierney, whose district includes Cape Ann, and Barney Frank, who represents New Bedford, the region’s leading fishing ports.
The first phase of the investigation — aimed at determining whether outside interests, including environmental groups, were granted undue influence in setting federal fishing policies — has been completed and the work product is under review by NOAA, the Gloucester Daily Times, a sister paper of The Daily News, has learned from congressional sources. The same sources said the IG expects to issue the results of the first phase of the investigation in January.
The agency’s low priority placed on resolving complaints about “mismanagement and minor misconduct” at NOAA, which the inspector general’s report described, is consistent with the perceived attitude of toleration of major misconduct, dating to the start of the Obama administration when the president’s choice to head NOAA, Jane Lubchenco, chose not to fire, punish or sanction the director of Law Enforcement, Dale Jones, and his agents and litigators whose actions triggered a series of national investigations and a two-volume set of case studies into justice miscarried against fishermen and fishing-related businesses, including the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction.
Zinser testified to congressional subcommittees that Jones authorized the shredding of most documents in his files during an official investigation by Zinser’s staff, allowed the asset forfeiture fund — compiled fines and penalties paid by fishermen, many documented by the IG as excessive — and otherwise allowed agents and litigators based in Gloucester, at NOAA’s regional offices, to trample the rights of fishermen. After a special judicial master’s review of more than 50 incidents in May 2011, a Cabinet level apology was issued to 11 of the most aggrieved parties and more than $650,000 in reparations was returned.
The second volume of 66 case studies — undertaken by the same special investigator, Charles B. Swartwood III, at the behest of then-Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in May 2011 — was completed and submitted at least eight months ago, but has not been made public. That Commerce inaction has sparked calls for its publication from the congressional delegation, including Democratic Sen. John Kerry and Georgia Republican Paul Broun, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight.
The section of the IG’s annual report on NOAA’s lackadaisical response to complaints was illustrated with a graph showing complaints at NOAA spiking from about 35 in the third quarter of fiscal 2011 to more than 60 by the third quarter of fiscal 2012. The federal fiscal year runs Oct. 1 through Sept. 30. The NOAA line was in red to differentiate it from other agencies within the Department of Commerce.
“Over the past seven quarters, complaints made to the (Office of Inspector General) hotline have consistently increased, driven largely by growth in complaints related to NOAA,” the annual report states. “While some complaints may have been caused by misunderstanding or miscommunication, they all need to be reviewed individually. OIG provides complaints related to mismanagement and minor misconduct to the responsible bureaus for proper handling. However, many cases referred to bureaus for inquiries and actions have not been reviewed sufficiently or in a timely manner.”
Tierney said the IG’s report adds more evidence to the case for ousting NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco and making other changes in agency “leadership.”
“The department must work with the inspector general to promptly address the reported complaints, particularly the ones related to NOAA,” Tierney said. “Yet, for there to be any real progress toward changing the culture and restoring accountability at NOAA, there must be new leadership.
“I will continue pressing this point with the White House,” he added, “and trust it will be fully considered as decisions on cabinet and sub-cabinet positions are currently being contemplated for the president’s second term.”
Blank’s Office of Communication did not respond to a series of calls about the OIG’s annual report and the status of the second volume of case studies into possible NOAA law enforcement abuse of authority in actions involving the fishing industry. The bulk of cases involves Gloucester- and New Bedford-based boats.
The annual report also reported in detail on the status of the investigation sought by Tierney and Frank into suspicions that foundation-supported non-government organizations have exerted an inordinate and improper influence on NOAA’s rule making by biasing the regulations against fishermen.
“We are currently reviewing NOAA’s controls and processes surrounding fisheries rulemaking as the first phase of our assessment of transparency and the rule of fishery councils in rulemaking,” the Zinser report states. “An effective regulatory environment requires a fair and transparent rulemaking process. Our review will consider the interactions among federal officials, fishing industry members and non-government organizations in the development of fishing regulations.”