Wednesday, December 4, 2013
By JAY LINDSAY The Associated Press
BOSTON - A luxury undercover boat, purchased with fines collected from fishermen, was used by federal fishery police to visit dockside restaurants and for high-speed "pleasure cruising," according to documents released Friday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration bought the 35-foot boat for about $300,000 so its law enforcement officers could secretly monitor whether whale watch boats in Washington's Puget Sound were harassing whales.
But the documents indicate the boat was rarely used for official business.
"It was a fishermen-funded party boat for bureaucrats," U.S. Sen. Scott Brown said on the Senate floor Friday.
The Massachusetts Republican's office obtained the November 2011 documents after submitting a Freedom of Information Act request.
The purchase of the boat was first disclosed in July 2010, as part of an audit by the Inspector General of the U.S. Commerce Department on how the millions in fines paid by fishermen were being used.
The audit uncovered broad mismanagement of the money; NOAA has since reformed how the fines are handled.
On Friday, Brown said the boat was a symbol of wasteful Washington spending and NOAA's damaged relationship with fishermen.
Brown repeated his request that President Obama fire NOAA Chief Jane Lubchenco.
"This needs to change and accountability starts at the top," he said. "If not now, when? If not for this, then for what?"
NOAA said it has completely overhauled its enforcement program since the inspector general's findings.
"We hired new leadership, implemented new policies to ensure consistent enforcement practices nationwide, and put in place better accounting and oversight systems," the agency said in a prepared statement.
NOAA's law enforcement office can levy fines as large as six figures for violations of the nation's complicated fisheries laws, which regulate things such as where fishermen can fish and at what times, what gear they can use and how they must report their catch.