, Salem, MA

October 4, 2012

Our view: Feds cannot allow altering of NOAA abuse report

The Salem News

---- — After sitting more than six months on a second, in-depth probe report from special investigator Robert B. Swartwood III, the word that acting Commerce Secretary Roberta Blank has asked her staff “to gather more information regarding issues” spotlighted in Swartwood’s report on 66 cases of alleged abuse by NOAA enforcement personnel against the commercial fishing industry at least shows some long-overdue movement.

Yet, it’s also troubling to learn that Blank expects to “use that information to finalize her decision memorandum,” as Blank’s press secretary, Marni Goldberg, reported in an email to our sister paper, the Gloucester Daily Times, last week.

While Blank may indeed be “completing her analysis” of the second Swartwood report, as Goldberg also noted, federal lawmakers, fishermen, industry activists and indeed taxpayers at large shouldn’t have to wait for an analysis by the acting head of the department whose employees are at the center of the investigation. And if any of this “more information” is coming from further interviews with NOAA’s or Commerce’s own agents, Blank shouldn’t even bother.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry, who remains the only member of the state’s federal legislative delegation not to call for Lubchenco’s ouster, says that while “it’s important that the report be released at the earliest date possible, it’s just as important that it be comprehensive,” according to Kerry spokeswoman Jodi Seth. Yet, given his findings the first time around — findings that led to a 2011 Cabinet-level apology to fishermen, and the payment of some $650,000 in reparations to fishermen whose fines were found to be excessive and wrongly motivated — there’s no reason to think that Swartwood’s new, 554-page report is anything but thorough.

Blank may well want to contribute her “analysis,” and is welcome to bolster or refute any of the charges and findings expected in Swartwood’s report. But federal lawmakers — including Kerry, whose brother, Cameron Kerry, works as the Commerce Department’s general counsel — should not allow Blank and other officials to respond or especially alter Swartwood’s initial findings before they are released.

That’s called doctoring. And the doctoring of federal investigative documents can and should be seen as obstructing justice — the kind of obstructing that cries out for a fully independent federal prosecutor these cases have needed for far too long.

It’s time our lawmakers recognized that as well.