By Richard Gaines Staff Writer
Congressman John Tierney has urged Commerce Secretary John Bryson to "freeze all expenditures" from the NOAA's Asset Forfeiture Fund — made up of fines paid by fishermen — until deficiencies in controls outlined by the department's Inspector General and dramatized by actions in NOAA's Seattle law enforcement office are eliminated.
Tierney also pressed Bryson with questions about the misuse of the fund by NOAA's Seattle Office of Law Enforcement, which drew $300,787 from the fund in 2008 to acquire a 35-foot luxury cabin boat with flat screen TV and built-in bar for undercover operations — then used it mostly for pleasure cruising in Puget Sound by law enforcement officials, friends and family, the Inspector General found.
NOAA conceded that the purchase violated the "spirit" of federal procurement law; The Inspector General's report described the events as involving "misconduct."
Tierney and U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, who separately obtained and released the IG's report last week under the Freedom of Information Act, characterized the transaction as filled with improprieties, dishonesty and corruption.
The IG's report was sent to NOAA on Nov. 4, then heavily redacted before it was released to Tierney and Brown last Thursday. Their offices made the report public immediately.
Brown took to the Senate floor to brief his colleagues on Friday.
At the same time, Tierney was composing the letter to Bryson, which was released to the Times.
Tierney copied the Republican chairman of, and ranking Democrat, on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, noting that the issues in the incident "warrant" Congressional scrutiny.
Brown told the Times in a telephone interview Friday that a Senate or House subcommittee with subpoena power should begin a systematic investigation of NOAA.
The redactions removed names of NOAA law enforcement personnel involved in the boat's acquisition and use and the response of the Seattle office.
At the time and apparently still today, the office was staffed by three agents, Chief Vicki Nomura, and two deputies — one of whom, Brad Vinish, was praised on Facebook last May by the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office for providing "high level" training for the boating safety deputy.
Calls to Vinish are referred to the other NOAA deputy agent in Seattle and emails are diverted to Nomura, who referred questions to NOAA law enforcement national headquarters' communications in Silver Spring, Md.