The chairwoman of the House panel that oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration yesterday called for the agency's director of law enforcement to step down in the wake of a scandal over heavy-handed fisheries enforcement.
House Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee Chairwoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) said that NOAA Law Enforcement Director Dale Jones should be at least temporarily relieved of his duties, given questions over whether he may have tried to destroy documents to avoid an even more scathing report from the Commerce Department's top investigator.
"As the top cop at NOAA and a longtime investigator himself, Dale Jones must be acutely aware that shredding documents during a federal investigation raises serious questions about his commitment to a full and fair look at all the facts," Bordallo said at a subcommittee hearing on the issue yesterday. "At a time when transparency and accountability in the way our government operates is of utmost importance, this type of behavior cannot be condoned, and Mr. Jones should step aside until the IG's investigation is completed."
Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) also called for Jones to step down -- saying NOAA officials should consider an overhaul of the whole department.
"We need a whole reorganization from Mr. Jones down," Tierney said. "People come in and treat these fishermen like common criminals."
The Commerce Department's inspector general released a report in January that found serious flaws in NOAA's fisheries enforcement and law enforcement operations -- describing an unbalanced system, too heavy on criminal investigation, that has created a "dysfunctional relationship" between NOAA and the fishing industry.
The lawmakers' request comes amid new allegations that Jones destroyed documents during the ongoing investigation.
Jones authorized the destruction of more than 100 files at law enforcement headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., during the investigation of his department last year, according to Commerce IG Todd Zinser. The allegations came to light yesterday during two hearings in the House and Senate on fisheries enforcement.
"It was not authorized by me, and when I informed NOAA leadership of what we found, they did not say they authorized it either," Zinser said of the shredding. "I was surprised by it. What came to my mind is, I wonder what the office of law enforcement would do if a fishing company they were investigating had done the same thing?"
Zinser is conducting a new investigation of Jones' actions, which he said should be completed within one month. He said that Jones has told him the document destruction was a routine attempt to clear away old files and had been planned for more than a year.
NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said she would hold off on personnel action until the new investigation is complete -- the course of action Zinser recommended to her. But she said she is "quite concerned" about the document destruction, which she just learned of Monday.
"I do think it does not look good," Lubchenco said yesterday.
Jones's office was already under fire after the IG found "systemic, nationwide" issues plaguing the fisheries enforcement program.
The report from the IG in January said law enforcement officers have created a "highly charged regulatory climate," especially in the Northeast, with strict enforcement of complicated laws that commercial fishers find hard to follow. Ninety percent of NOAA's law enforcement staff are criminal investigators, even though most fisheries' infractions are misdemeanors.
Fishers can face penalties of tens of thousands of dollars, jail time or years of legal battles for violations of fisheries or species protection laws. Fishing advocates say those charges often come for innocent mistakes or misunderstandings.
"It is just so disproportionate," said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). "It is just simply horrible to think they had to face these devastating consequences."
How to respond?
In response to the IG report, Lubchenco ordered an overhaul of the department's enforcement system and outlined 10 program changes for NOAA's general counsel and acting fisheries administrator.
She asked the department to immediately freeze hirings of criminal investigators, institute higher-level reviews for enforcement decisions, improve data, develop an outreach strategy with fishers and revise procedures and penalties to make sure they are consistent and clear.
But lawmakers suggested more drastic responses. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said Lubchenco should consider firing everyone in the law enforcement department and allowing them to reapply for their positions.
Other lawmakers noted that Lubchenco will have to take special care not to let the issue slip. An investigation more than 10 years ago found similar problems with NOAA fisheries enforcement, but the problems persisted. Lubchenco said she could not comment on why, since that report came before her time.
Senate Oceans and Fisheries Subcommittee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) encouraged Lubchenco to dig deeper to investigate the response, or lack thereof, to the last report -- a recommendation Lubchenco said she would take to heart.
"I think you'll find that the same issues why those recommendations were not implemented will be the same reasons why these won't be, as well," Cantwell said. "We don't want to do another report in a few years and find the same issues. These are cultural barriers in an organization that need to be broken down. Until we find out what those are, we cannot move forward."
The most recent investigation came at Lubchenco's request after she heard complaints from fishers and lawmakers about fisheries enforcement. Zinser said he thinks she will fight to address the problems, noting that she could have called for a lower-key internal NOAA audit, but took the issue to him.
"It was my view then and continues to be that [Lubchenco] wants to know the underlying problems and fix them," Zinser said.
If so, she may have her work cut out for her.
"It seems like you came at a bad time," said Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.). "You inherited a mess."