BOSTON — The union for federal attorneys accused of bias and squeezing high fines out of suspected fishery law violators warned the government to back off reforms, saying it can’t legally enact them.
The National Weather Service Employees Organization said Tuesday that changes announced last week by U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to fix problems with fishery enforcement must, by law, be negotiated with the union.
The changes include establishing a hot line to deal with fishermen’s complaints about overzealous enforcement and reviews by a special master of 19 questionable penalties against Northeastern fishermen. Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser deemed the penalties “problematic” in his report last week on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s law enforcement off ice, which is under the Commerce Department.
Locke also said he would put further restrictions on how fines collected from fishermen are spent.
Union attorney Marguerite Matera said in a letter to NOAA’s general counsel that if the changes weren’t negotiated before they were implemented it would file an unfair labor practice charge with the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Matera also called Zinser’s allegations “spurious” and suggested the report was driven by lawmakers hoping to win favor with constituents during an election year.
“[The union] is keenly aware of the serious political trouble that Democratic officeholders are facing in their re-election efforts in Massachusetts,” Matera wrote. “This desperation does not give the agency an excuse to engage in serious and blatant violations of federal labor law.”
Department of Commerce spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said Locke’s “aggressive” action aimed to restore trust in the law enforcement agency after “a series of troubling issues cited in the inspector general’s reports ranging from inappropriate conduct to misuse of taxpayer dollars.”
New Bedford fisheries attorney Pamela Lafreniere, who has represented numerous fishermen accused of fishery law violations, said ensuring penalized fishermen were treated fairly is not a federal labor issue.
“Those agreements do need to be looked at, and it is well within the purview of the secretary of commerce to say so,” she said.
Lafreniere added the union’s attempts to discredit claims against the attorneys aren’t credible, given Zinser’s review and extensive testimony from fishing industry members.
“It means that hundreds, hundreds of people had to come in and lie under oath,” she said. “I just don’t think that that’s just really plausible.”
NOAA’s law enforcement office ensures fishermen follow the myriad rules designed to protect fish, including gear restrictions and closures of fishing areas.
Zinser’s review began last year after persistent complaints from Northeast fishermen about retaliation and excessive fines. It found allegations of abusive behavior weren’t widespread, but it said some attorneys seemed biased against fishermen and set excessively high fines to force fishermen to settle rather than risk losing a judgment in a system in which a violation can cost $140,000.
During the investigation, one of the law enforcement office’s former directors was removed after he was accused of ordering dozens of documents shredded. Also, Zinser said a financial audit of the NOAA fund that held millions of dollars in fines collected from fishermen showed the money was misused on items such as a luxury undercover boat.
In her letter Tuesday, Matera said Locke had no right to restrict how fines collected from fishermen would be used — such as his restriction on worker benefits or awards — without negotiating with the union over the effect on its members.
In an interview, union general counsel Richard Hirn said Zinser’s review wrongly made scapegoats out of attorneys who simply were enforcing the laws and penalties Congress put in place. He said they had been commended and received a combined $44,000 in performance bonuses for the work in question.
The idea of looking back at closed cases is “absolutely bizarre,” Hirn said.
“Unless somebody is on death row and you found new DNA evidence, in the American legal system … you don’t go back and look at cases just because somebody says, ‘I don’t like the result,”’ he said.