October 31, 2012 -- If you were at a policy level in NOAA, the Department of Commerce, the Democratic Party or the Obama Administration, would you release the second Swartwood report, possibly focusing on even more enforcement abuses against independent fishermen or would you sit on the report until after the election?
Fact: Senator Scott Brown (Republican) and candidate Elizabeth Warren (Democrat) are in a close race for one of the two Massachusetts seats in the United States Senate.
Fact: A majority in the United States Senate, which is now in the hands of the Democratic Party, is considered by many pundits to be “up for grabs” in the rapidly approaching election, and the outcome in Massachusetts will be critical in determining which party controls the Senate – and the United States Congress – starting in 2013.
Fact: Senator Scott Brown has been an ardent supporter of the commercial fishing industry and has been particularly outspoken about an ongoing investigation of corruption at the highest levels of the enforcement branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Fact: New Englanders in general and residents of Massachusetts in particular tend to be extremely supportive of their fishing communities and of the fishing heritage that has played such a significant role in shaping the character of their coastline.
Fact: A 514 page report on the follow-up investigation by Special Master Charles Swartwood of NOAA enforcement abuses of fishermen and fishing associated businesses centered in New England and primarily in Massachusetts was completed and delivered to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce in March of 2012.
Fact: In spite of strong bipartisan Congressional prodding to make the report public, prodding in which Senator Scott Brown has assumed a leadership role, (Acting) Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank has refused to do so. To her credit Elizabeth Warren, his opponent, has been seeking the release of the report as well.
Fact: Massachusetts Senator John Kerry’s brother, Cameron Kerry, is general counsel of the Department of Commerce.
Suppose the follow-up report of Special Master Swartwood had been made public by the Secretary of Commerce in a timely fashion and suppose it to be at least as damaging to the reputation and to the credibility of the Department and of NOAA as was the original investigation – necessitating that the Department pay $650,000 in “reparations” to fishing industry members who were victimized by NOAA, a supposed reworking of how NOAA enforcement operated, and a public apology by then Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and NOAA head Jane Lubchenco to the victims of an out-of-control federal agency? There would have been a clamor in the media, the issue would have been front and center for a few days, and by now it would have been forgotten.
That didn’t happen and, at least initially, it’s easy to understand why it didn’t. John Bryson, who had replaced Gary Locke as Secretary of Commerce, resigned in June of this year after an episode of automobile accidents and seemingly strange behavior, and Ms. Blank took over as Acting Secretary. It’s hard to imagine that this rapid and perhaps somewhat strained turn-around in leadership didn’t have a profound temporary effect on business as usual in the USDOC.
The extended delay since then in making the report public, even in a severely redacted form, has been explained by a Department of Commerce spokesperson as necessitated by Secretary Blank’s request “to gather more information regarding issues identified in the second Swartwood report.”
That’s almost half a year of gathering “more information.”
In the meantime the race for the Massachusetts Senate seat between Senator Brown and Ms. Warren was heating up.
So, if you were at a policy level in NOAA, the Department of Commerce, the Democratic Party or the Obama Administration, what would you do? Would you release the report, possibly focusing on even more enforcement abuses against independent fishermen and small fishing related businesses by NOAA law enforcement (the follow-up report is reportedly twice the length of the initial report), making it appear as if they were victims of an Obama Administration that has been campaigning on the idea that it is pro-small business and pro-middle class and were likewise entitled to another embarrassing public apology from the Secretary of Commerce and the head of NOAA, or would you sit on the report until after the election?
I think it’s safe to assume that Senator Scott would do all that he could to insure that the report got all of the attention it deserved, and rightly so. Could it help him to a victory in the election? If it’s as close a race as it’s reported to be, why wouldn’t it? Could that seat determine which party has a majority in the Senate and the entire Congress? You betcha!
But what of the people who have been identified as additional victims of NOAA enforcement (I’m assuming here that Special Master Swartwood didn’t put together a 500 page report based on the fact that there were no additional victims)? Like many of the victims identified in the first Swartwood report, their lives have been – at best – on hold since their encounters with an out-of-control federal agency. Several of them have had businesses which it took them a lifetime to build wantonly destroyed. How many of the second round of victims are still in a politically induced economic and personal limbo?
And what of any additional NOAA employees who were found to have engaged in still more egregious abuses of their sworn offices or of those employees who allowed them to engage in those abuses (ditto the 500 pages)? Are they still and will they continue to be employed by the Department of Commerce, collecting their taxpayer-provided paychecks and using their taxpayer provided benefits?
While it’s hard to imagine that the future governance of the United States could hinge on the delayed release of a single report, if the delay of the release of that report was due to high-level political interference, it surely should. Politics is politics and justice is justice, and a large part of what has made the United States the country – and the ideal – that it is is the stringent separation of the two. I hate to think that somewhere high up in the Obama Administration a line has been crossed, but it’s hard to think that it hasn’t and it’s even harder to think that it’s once again at the expense of hard working and law abiding members of the fishing industry.