The special investigative master who documented federal law enforcement abuses of commercial fishermen and businesses last year is continuing to review NOAA law enforcement's handling of dozens of cases, lawyers in Gloucester and New Bedford confirmed Tuesday.
Commerce Secretary John Bryson and the judicial master, retired federal magistrate Charles B. Swartwood III, did not respond immediately to questions about the continuing investigation submitted by the Times to Swartwood's employer, JAMS, the judicial, arbitration and mediation services company.
But attorneys Stephen Ouellette of Gloucester and Pamela Lafreniere independently confirmed that each had at least a dozen clients who had been interviewed by Swartwood. It was his initial followup to an Inspector General's 2009 probe that last summer brought about a Cabinet-level apology and reparations paid to New England fishermen and waterfront businesses, including the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction.
"Overzealous enforcement and unjustifiably high fines," was how Lafreniere characterized the problems described by her clients to the special master.
Ouellette agreed that his clients who had appealed to Swartwood had the "same type of problems," dating from the era that began late in the second Clinton administration with the appointment of Dale J. Jones to head ocean law enforcement.
The Jones era ended in April 2010 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration slid Jones into a non-law enforcement position in the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, agents based in Gloucester, where the problems were concentrated, were also replaced, though no one has been fired, punished or sanctioned.
Both Ouellette and Lafreniere said Tuesday they expect Swartwood to issue a report to Bryson on his second chapter of case studies sometime in March or April.
NOAA has been creating controls over law enforcement, writing protocols and hiring new leaders. Jones' successor, Bruce Buckson, was hired last July from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
JAMS has had a Commerce Department contract since January 2011 for Swartwood to pick up and more closely examine the most troubling strands of systemic failures of the past federal fisheries law enforcement administration documented by Inspector General Todd Zinser.
Zinser's investigations, together with Swartwood's case studies, validated chronic complaints from fishermen and others in the industry that NOAA law enforcement — especially the agents and litigators based at Northeast Division headquarters in Gloucester's Blackburn Industrial Park — treated fishermen as criminals, extracting fines of up to 500 percent higher than in other parts of the country for record-keeping and red tape violations.