FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 12, 2010
SCHUMER CALLS FOR NOAA TO IMMEDIATELY SELL UNAUTHORIZED BOATS, CARS AND OTHER ASSETS AND USE PROCEEDS TO HELP FUND NORTHEASTERN FISHERMEN WHO WERE EXCESSIVELY FINED AND WHOSE FISHING SEASONS WERE SHORTENED
United States Senator Charles E. Schumer called on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration today to immediately begin selling off unauthorized purchases it made with Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF) money and return the proceeds to the fund and fishermen who committed no wrong or were excessively fined. A bombshell report issued by the Commerce Department’s inspector general’s office revealed that over the course of the last four years, forfeiture funds, obtained through fines levied against fishermen and through selling seized property, were used against the law, to purchase vehicles, boats, and international travel for employees of the Northeast Region of the Marine Fisheries Agency. The Inspector General’s report stated that regional offices of the Marine Fisheries Agency were acting autonomously and fines for the Northeast Region were way out of line and more than two times those levied in other regions throughout the country.
“It appears that we had a out-of-control regional Fisheries office that used excess fines and forfeitures as a slush fund for excess,” said Schumer. “The fact that the very people charged with enforcing the rules related to fishing have done so in an arbitrary and capricious way throws NOAA’s entire enforcement program into doubt. I am calling on NOAA to hold people responsible, sell off the cars, boats and other unauthorized purchases and fund fishermen who were unjustly or excessively fined and whose fishing seasons have been shortened.”
In his letter to Administrator, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Schumer called on NOAA to immediately halt use of AFF funds until NOAA is able to enforce appropriate use of these funds and implements a system of oversight that is accountable and transparent. Additionally, he called on NOAA to refund the AFF monies for any wrongly-spent funds, including staff travel, and sell any assets, such as boats or cars, that were inappropriately purchased with AFF money. Schumer called on NOAA to immediately analyze individual excess fines, re-calculate an appropriate fine, and return the excess to northeast fishermen. Moreover, Schumer said that monies not needed to reimburse excess fines be used as economic aid or re-training programs for displaced fishermen burdened by catch restrictions.
An earlier Inspector General report found that NOAA’s process for determining civil penalties is characterized by, “(S)ignificant discretion on the part of individual enforcement attorneys,” making it, “difficult to argue with those who view the process as arbitrary and in need of reform.” Further, the report points out that fines in the northeast region were significantly higher than any other region, suggesting that the northeast region was a rouge local entity. Schumer today was joined by commercial fishermen and fish dealers with first-hand knowledge of such abuses.
“I am gravely concerned with the ability of a regional Fisheries Agency to so wantonly circumvent the law without notice for so long,” continued Schumer. “NOAA has a lot of work to do to rectify this situation and we will be watching with a close eye to determine if even more significant steps are necessary to clean up this mess.”
July 12, 2010
Dr. Jane Lubchenco
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
1401 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20230
Dear Dr. Lubchenco,
I write today to express my grave concern over a recent audit finding gross mismanagement of Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF) money at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This abuse of funding is even more troubling given an earlier report raising concerns that funds may have been raised inappropriately. I urge you to immediately freeze spending of AFF money and conduct a thorough investigation to determine if this money was collected appropriately and if any should be returned to fishermen.
The Inspector General’s (IG) audit of July 1st details a pattern of mismanagement of the AFF, money NOAA collects from fishermen as fines and penalties. As stated in the audit “NOAA has administered the AFF in a manner that is neither transparent nor conducive to accountability, thus rendering it susceptible to both error and abuse.” Management of the AFF was so lax that the auditors were not able to determine how much money was in the account but could only estimate that the “current balance likely falls within a broader range.” Even more troubling are findings that NOAA staff was using AFF funds for purchases such as a luxury boat and international travel. Given the extreme nature of these findings, I urge you to immediately halt use of AFF funds until NOAA is able to enforce appropriate use of these funds and implements a system of oversight that is accountable and transparent. In addition, NOAA must refund the AFF for any wrongly-spent funds, including staff travel, and sell any assets, such as boats or cars, that were inappropriately purchased with AFF money.
This most recent audit is particularity troubling in light of a January report on NOAA enforcement operations. That IG report found that NOAA’s process for determining civil penalties is characterized by “significant discretion on the part of individual enforcement attorneys” making it “difficult to argue with those who view the process as arbitrary and in need of reform.” Further, the IG points out that fines in the Northeast region were significantly higher than any other region. I urge NOAA to immediately conduct an analysis of the Northeast region’s fines to determine why fines in Northeast were substantially higher than the rest of the country and what actions should be taken to rectify this problem. It is encouraging that the IG committed in his testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee in March to examine individual complaints from fisherman who believe they were treated unfairly or subject to overzealous enforcement. If it is determined that fishermen in the Northeast were over-fined, NOAA must return the excess money to the fishermen in order to serve justice and regain public trust. Moreover, monies not needed for law enforcement purposes or to reimburse excess fines should be used as economic aid or re-training programs for displaced fishermen burdened by catch restrictions.
NOAA has taken initial steps to correct some of the issues raised by the IG but much work remains to be done. It is imperative that you work expeditiously to overhaul the AFF, investigate and resolve cases of abuse, and regain the public trust. Thank you for your attention to this urgent request.
Charles E. Schumer