WASHINGTON - Sept. 23, 2010 - The following is the text of a Commerce Department fact sheet on the reforms instutued by Secretary Gary Locke on Fisheries Enforcement.
Secretary Locke to Appoint Special Master to Review NOAA Law Enforcement Cases, Restricts Use of the Asset Forfeiture Fund
U.S. Commerce Secretary Locke announced today sweeping reforms to increase accountability and transparency and strengthen the public’s trust in NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement and the General Counsel for Enforcement and Litigation.
Secretary Locke, invoking his authority under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, announced he will appoint the Honorable Charles B. Swartwood, III to serve as Special Master to review enforcement cases the Commerce Department’s Inspector General identified in its most recent report as problematic, some dating as far back as 2001. Judge Swartwood will make recommendations to Locke on whether to take action to modify or remit the penalties.
Asset Forfeiture Fund
Under provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, NOAA has authority to retain proceeds from the civil penalties imposed and collected by the agency, as well as the proceeds from the sale of seized fish and vessels, to pay for “expenses directly related to investigations and civil or criminal enforcement proceedings.”
Secretary Locke announced significant restrictions in the use of the Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF) to prevent abuse and increase transparency. The new policy now prohibits 50 percent of the Fund’s historical uses, including the purchase of vehicles and vessels; paying for travel that is not related to investigations, proceedings or training; or paying for training unrelated to an integral part of an employee’s job. In addition to the travel and training restrictions, other prohibited uses in the policy are:
·Funding for any NOAA employee labor, benefits or awards;
·Funding for any vehicle or vessel purchases or leases, or associated equipment, upgrades, modification or maintenance of current vehicles or vessels;
·Funding for the purchase of any equipment that is not directly related to a specific investigation or enforcement proceedings.
The new policy also includes a number of authorized uses as well as a new section aimed at improving and expanding NOAA’s compliance assistance, collaboration and outreach activities. Activities will include:
·Expanding the use of regional enforcement workshops and training sessions to bring together and educate stakeholders on regulations and other requirements;
·Educating and involving fishermen in the development of potential solutions to regional and national enforcement issues;
·Improving communications with regulated communities and the general public on enforcement issues through improved websites, easy-to-understand compliance guides and timely electronic or other notifications of changes in regulations.
The Department of Commerce is seeking public comment on the proposed guidance, and will work with the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee to develop proposals for activities or program enhancements that will improve compliance with all marine resource statute.
In addition to these reforms, Secretary Locke announced that NOAA will hire eight new enforcement officers to increase NOAA’s presence on the docks to assist fishermen on compliance with laws and to reduce enforcement actions and prosecutions. The Department will also initiate a compliance pilot program in New England, including hiring a compliance assistance liaison and a communications person to enhance outreach to the fishing industry.
Previous Activities to Address the IG’s Recommendations
In addition to the new policy, NOAA has also systematically addressed the IG’s recommendations from earlier reports, including:
·Transferring oversight of the Asset Forfeiture Fund, which holds fines imposed by NOAA, from NOAA Fisheries to the NOAA Comptroller.
·Requiring justification and approval from the NOAA comptroller for any expenditure from the Asset Forfeiture Fund over $1,000.
·Reassigning Alan Risenhoover, director of NOAA’s Office of Sustainable Fisheries, to serve as acting director of NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement.
·Hiring Benjamin Friedman as the new Assistant General Counsel for Enforcement and Litigation.
·Freezing the hiring of criminal investigators until a work force analysis is completed to determine the appropriate mix of criminal investigators and civil enforcement officers.
·Implementing a new rule to place the burden of justifying a particular civil penalty or permit sanction on NOAA rather than the respondent in cases before administrative law judges.
·Developing a process to set enforcement priorities at the national and regional level.
·Requiring high level legal review of all charging and settlement decisions.
·Providing enforcement charging information to the public.
NOAA continues to work towards other improvements, including:
·Developing a new penalty policy that will be more specific and have narrower penalty ranges and will be made available for public comment.
·Reviewing and revising NOAA law enforcement and general counsel operations manuals.
·Developing a communications plan to provide greater outreach to fishermen and fishing communities, and other fisheries stakeholders.