Audit faults NOAA on fishermen’s fines
An audit of how fishery police used millions in federal fines collected from fishermen has found they misspent it on such items as cars for managers, a $300,000 luxury undercover boat, and a weeklong training workshop in Norway.
The audit, released yesterday, was commissioned earlier this year after the inspector general of the US Department of Commerce found mismanagement by the law enforcement office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Inspector General Todd Zinser investigated after fishermen complained for years about arbitrary enforcement of fishery laws, saying the fines amounted to a bounty because NOAA kept the money.
Gloucester fishermen Richard Burgess, who has fought $85,000 in fines, said NOAA should repay fishermen every dime.
“We’ve all known that they’re criminals,’’ Burgess said of the law enforcement office. “Every one of them has got to go.’’
The audit of the fund in which the fines and penalties were deposited, the Asset Forfeiture Fund, was conducted by the accounting firm KPMG.
The report also said that between January 2005 and June 2009, the fund received $96 million while expending $49 million, suggesting its balance was much higher than the $8.4 million NOAA had previously estimated.
In a statement, NOAA said it has already taken steps to improve its own scrutiny of the fund.
NOAA’s law enforcement office can impose large fines on fishermen accused of breaking the nation’s complex fisheries laws. In January, a report by Zinser’s office found financial mismanagement and the appearance of unfair enforcement against Northeast fishermen. Zinser later disclosed that director Dale Jones ordered dozens of files destroyed. Jones was removed from his post in April.
In his memo yesterday, Zinser said the money collected in fines and penalties appears to be restricted by law to “expenses directly related to investigations and civil or criminal enforcement proceedings.’’ But the audit found several expenses that did not appear to meet that standard, including vehicles for managers used for their daily commute.
The audit also said the law enforcement office spent $2.7 million on 22 boats, including $300,000 for an undercover vessel described on the manufacturer’s website as “luxurious.’’
In addition, the audit said that the fund was charged $580,000 for international travel between January 2005 and June 2009, but that only 17 percent of the cost was for travel directly related to investigations or enforcement proceedings. The rest, the audit said, was for trainings and meetings, including a weeklong fisheries enforcement training workshop in Norway in 2008.