Fishery police misspent fines on cars, boats, travel

Posted July 01, 2010, at 4:53 p.m.

BOSTON — An audit of how fishery police used millions in federal fines collected from fishermen has found they misspent it on items including cars for managers, a $300,000 luxury undercover boat and a weeklong training workshop in Norway.

The audit, released Thursday, was commissioned earlier this year after the U.S. Department of Commerce’s inspector general found mismanagement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s law enforcement office.

Inspector General Todd Zinser investigated after fishermen complained for years about arbitrary enforcement of the nation’s fishery laws, saying the fines amounted to a bounty because NOAA kept the money.

Gloucester fisherman Richard Burgess, who has fought $85,000 in fines, said NOAA should pay fishermen back 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 where the fines and penalties were deposited, the Asset Forfeiture Fund, was conducted by the accounting firm KPMG. Zinser said the fund was so poorly managed it wasn’t even identified in NOAA’s annual budget documents.

“NOAA has administered the [fund] in a manner that is neither transparent nor conducive to accountability, thus rendering it susceptible to both error and abuse,” Zinser said in a memo to NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco.

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 previously had estimated.

NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen said the fund had an $8.8 million balance as of June 14. He said “there may have been a misinterpretation” by KPMG when it estimated how much money came into the fund in recent years. Smullen said NOAA gave the accounting firm 5 million electronic records, at its request, including receipts for the entire agency, just a portion of which involved the fund.

“That may have led to confusion about the fund balance,” Smullen said, adding that the agency hoped to clear up the discrepancy by making sure that KPMG and the Commerce Department had the right information.

In a statement, NOAA also said it already has taken steps to improve its own scrutiny of the fund, including shifting its management to NOAA’s comptroller and requiring the comptroller to approve any expenditure over $1,000. It said it was working to have the fund monitored by an independent accounting firm.

NOAA’s law enforcement office can impose large fines on fishermen accused of breaking the nation’s complex fisheries laws, which regulate, for instance, where and when fishermen can fish and how much they can catch of a given species.

In January, a report by Zinser’s office found financial mismanagement and the appearance of unfair enforcement against Northeast fishermen. Zinser later disclosed that then-director Dale Jones ordered dozens of files destroyed during his investigation, and Jones was removed from his post in April.

In its memo Thursday, Zinser IG 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 IG cited several expenses it said didn’t appear to meet that standard, including vehicles for managers who used the cars mainly for their daily commute — including Jones, who drove a Chrysler Pacifica.

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” with a “beautifully appointed cabin.”

In addition, the audit said the fund was charged $580,000 for international travel between January 2005 and June 2009, but only 17 percent of the cost was for travel directly related to investigations or enforcement proceedings.

The rest, the audit said, was for training and meetings, including a weeklong fisheries enforcement training workshop in Norway in 2008 attended by 15 federal employees at a cost of $109,000.

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