March 14, 2012
NOAA's Party BoatBy Mike Johnson
A boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money. An old cliché, and very, very true.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), while not yet reaching the level of cliché, has become a euphemism for inept management.
NOAA's Fisheries Service Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) in Seattle bought a boat -- a very fancy boat, a "luxurious" boat, a boat that cost $300,787. You can view a sales video of the boat here. Indulge yourself -- see how the 1% lives.
The boat was delivered in June 2008 and was used by OLE personnel for personal entertainment. The first operational patrol was in June 2009, a year after the boat had been delivered. It was taken out of service in September 2010 after a total of just nine operational patrols.
Much of the factual information in this essay comes from a response by the Department of Commerce to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts. The FOIA response is dated 16 February 2012, and Senator Brown gave a speech from the Senate floor on 17 February. You can view the eight-minute speech here, and you will see that it is not normal go-along-to-get-along Senate demagoguery. Brown is a breath of fresh air. He asked, "What does it take to get fired at NOAA?"
The IG report in the FOIA response is heavily redacted -- for privacy concerns, we are assured. We are familiar with redacted FOIAs, particularly from NOAA. The redactions are annoying, but one can interpret who is who at least in broad terms. There is a primary actor in the NOAA Party Boat saga. He is one of four supervisory OLE agents in the Seattle office. I will refer to him as the Redacted Rascal, or RR for short.
The IG's report includes the following:
1. [RR] violated agency policy and ethical standards by operating the UC [undercover] vessel with his wife and/or friends aboard on three known occasions (workdays) in the summer of 2008.
2. When contemporaneously questioned by [redacted], and later by OIG [Office of the Inspector General], [RR] was not candid about unauthorized persons aboard the UC vessel, in violation of agency policy and the Standards of Ethical Conduct.
4a. Inappropriate use of personal credit card for nearly $12,000 in vessel operating costs.
4b. Interference [by RR] with OIG investigation.
How serious are these charges? Well, #2 and #4b can get you lots of hard time in a federal slammer -- just ask Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby, and the bleeping golden Blago. How did RR make out? Much better than the other three. RR is under the protection of the benevolent Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of NOAA. The following is also from the IG's report:
No criminal prosecution -- only an administrative action recommended, and we don't know if the recommendation was followed.
NOAA's Party Boat was paid for with funds from the OLE Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF) -- or as I call it, the Toys and Trips Fund. The Department of Commerce inspector general conducted an in-depth investigation of the NOAA fisheries enforcement operations, including the AFF. See the article by Nils E. Stolpe. The results were scathing.
The AFF abuses should have become a major exposé. The media let us down once again. The exposé never happened. The only major media outlet to cover the scandal was CBS Evening News, which did an excellent four-minute piece on 16 February 2011. The CBS piece is here, and my AT article is here.
CBS included a clip of a senator named Chuck who said, "I want to make sure that heads roll ... because in a bureaucracy, if heads don't roll, you don't change behavior." What is it about senators named Chuck? They see a camera and microphone and feel obliged to spout inanities? It's been more than a year, Senator Chuck Grassley. Where are the heads?
RR is not the special agent in charge (SAC) in Seattle. That person's name is Ms. Vicki L. Nomura. Ms. Nomura is not mentioned by name in the redacted FOIA materials. She is currently listed as the supervisory criminal investigator for the Northwest Enforcement Division on the NOAA Personnel Locator, which also gives her work phone number. She is shown (at the same phone number) as the SAC on the roster of attendees at the Second Global Fisheries Enforcement Training Workshop, Trondheim, Norway, 7-11 August 2008.
Nice work if you can get it. Norway in the dog days of summer (not that there are many dog days of summer in Seattle). All expenses paid, courtesy of the taxpayer? Well, not exactly. Did she pay her own way? Hardly. The trip was charged to the OLE AFF.
The AFF paid for Ms. Nomura's trip to Norway, the AFF paid for the purchase of NOAA's Party Boat, and the AFF paid for RR's operating expenses for the first several months of being the de facto captain of the vessel. The use of the vessel as a pleasure craft diminished once the front of the house told RR that AFF funds would no longer cover operating expenses.
On 8 August 2008, a Friday, while Ms. Nomura and her assistant were attending the conference in Norway, RR and his wife became stranded "in a shipping lane near Seattle" because RR did not know that he had to switch gas tanks manually should one run out. The SAC was in Norway, the ASAC was in Norway, and RR was stranded in harm's way. Who was protecting the little fishes from the rapacious fishermen?
The IG issued an interim report on just the AFF on 1 July 2010 and a final report on the overall NOAA fisheries enforcement operations on 23 September 2010. See also my AT article on NOAA's law enforcement behaving badly. In summary, NOAA fisheries enforcement, using means fair and foul (Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke was forced to publicly apologize for the foul means employed by NOAA fisheries enforcement), seized assets and fined fishermen to a total of about $100,000,000. The IG was able to trace about $60M of expenditures, but the other $40M seems to have done a disappearing act. Of the traceable $60M, much of it was expended in violation of statutes or not in accordance with policy. For example, using AFF funds for foreign travel is not permitted by the Magnuson-Stevens Act unless the travel is directly related to an ongoing investigation.
In the best tradition of a proactive meaningless bureaucratic response, Dr. Lubchenco called a NOAA National Enforcement Summit for 3 August 2010 to address and resolve the concerns of the IG. The summit was just a continuation of Dr. Lubchenco's papering over of the inspector general's very negative reports. Critical reports are career-killers. Bureaucrats react with frenzy and flying paper. Shakespearian drama and then some, but not always effective. Think Macbeth: "Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Do they actually think that we are foolish enough to trust that such actions will be effective? Or worse -- are they dim-witted enough to have faith in such actions being effective?
This past January, the IG issued a follow-up report in the most polite bureaucratic double-speak. Bottom line: NOAA has done next to nothing to correct the culture within the enforcement organizations. Sure, they tightened some procedures, reorganized around the margins, and clarified written policy to be less ambiguous. The IG also issued an AFF specific report in February. The finding of the AFF report is the following:
The better part of two years of inaction on NOAA's part, and the problem has not been fixed!
Nobody has been fired. Nobody has been demoted. Business as usual is the rule. Just look at the Redacted Rascal. He is still in the same position, drawing the same six-figure salary. NOAA's Party Boat is tied up at a marina, deteriorating for lack of use while running up storage fees of $400 per month -- of taxpayer money.
It is time to return some semblance of objective management to NOAA. In order to do this, Dr. Jane Lubchenco must be fired. So be it!
In order to fire Dr. Lubchenco, President Obama must be defeated -- as if we need another reason.
Mike Johnson is a concerned citizen, a small-government conservative, and a live-free-or-die resident of New Hampshire. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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