Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC) wrote to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco last week raising concerns about NOAA plans for reforming the agency’s use of funds derived from fines and forfeited assets from fishermen.
Congressman Jones called it “extremely troubling that the agency’s draft policy would allow proceeds from fines, penalties and forfeitures from fishermen to be used to pay the salaries of the Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) deciding cases brought against fishermen. Not only is this use of funds not authorized by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, it is terrible policy. The right to a trial before an unbiased, impartial judge is a bedrock principle of our democracy. If fisheries law judges are compensated with money from judgments against fishermen, the appearance, if not the practice, of impartiality is fundamentally compromised.”
The Congressman pointed out that in a recent Inspector General-commissioned audit of the NOAA Fisheries Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF) found extensive waste, fraud and abuse by the agency. The audit found that NOAA Fisheries “administered the AFF in a manner that is neither transparent nor conducive to accountability, thus rendering it susceptible to both error and abuse.” It also found that NOAA Fisheries used the AFF extensively “to cover a variety of expenses which do not appear to be ‘…directly related to investigations and civil or criminal enforcement proceedings,” which they are required to be by law. Such expenditures include over $500,000 spent on international travel in the past four and a half years. Other expenditures include $4.6 million for the purchase of 200 vehicles for only 172 enforcement personnel, including a vehicle for former OLE Director, Dale Jones, who would “ride the train to his office free of charge, by virtue of his status as an armed law enforcement officer,”; $2.7 million for the purchase of vessels, including $300,000 for an undercover vessel that the manufacturer’s website described as “luxurious” with a “beautifully appointed cabin”; and dozens of purchase card transactions that were either improper, fraudulent or duplicative.
The Congressman praised the parts of agency’s draft policy which prohibit the use of AFF funds for:
- funding for NOAA employee labor, benefits, or awards;
- funding for vehicle or vessel purchases or leases;
- funding for travel not related to specific investigations or enforcement proceedings; and,
- funding for equipment such as computers, blackberries, cell phones and furniture.
– Saving Seafood