Congressman John Tierney has asked the federal Commerce Department Inspector General to investigate whether the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "may be proactively pursuing the criminal prosecution of fishermen under seldom-invoked laws."
Tierney's Wednesday letter to Inspector General Todd Zinser was accompanied by a copies of criminal indictments or bills of particulars for alleged violations that according to a redacted message from an attorney have previously been handled as civil cases under the provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the overriding statute for the nation's fisheries.
In his letter to Zinser, Tierney wrote that the spate of criminal cases for fishing violations seemed to reflect a change in policy. The congressman, a former Essex County district attorney, noted that statistics provided by NOAA indicate that over the three years ending 2009, out of 1,589 cases investigated under Magnuson, 1,546 (or 97 percent) were handled as civil complaints.
In addition, Tierney sent the IG a copy of a June 15, 2010, letter from a high Justice Department official to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco proposing a conference with a single-subject agenda — "(building) on the successful work we have done together, particularly in the area of criminal enforcement."
That meeting was held, according to copies of an internal email and an exchange between NOAA and Justice Department functionaries, shortly after NOAA in September 2010 hired Benjamin Friedman away from the Justice Department to become assistant general counsel for enforcement and litigation.
The email proposing the conference to Lubchenco was written by Gary Grindler, then the acting deputy attorney general, now Attorney General Eric Holder's chief of staff. Grindler did not return phone calls Thursday.
Six U.S. attorneys, including Carmen Ortiz for the office in Boston, and two assistant attorneys general were listed in an email to NOAA as planning to attend.
Beginning in January 2010 and extending through the year, NOAA's prosecutors and an enforcement division of mostly criminal agents were exposed in a series of reports from the inspector general's office for having treated fishermen as if they were criminals for technical or minor violations of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.