BOSTON (AP) — The acting U.S. Commerce Secretary on Friday ordered federal regulators to return about $544,000 in unjust fines collected from 14 fishermen or fishing businesses, most of whom worked Northeast waters.
Secretary Rebecca Blank also directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to forgive two other complainants a combined $150,000 in debt.
Her decisions followed the second phase of a lengthy probe into charges by New England fishermen of abusive, unfair treatment by the officers and attorneys who enforce the nation's fishing laws.
Blank's decisions mean nearly $1.2 million in unjust penalties has now been ordered returned to fishermen. In May 2011, the commerce secretary ordered $650,000 in unjust fines given back.
New Bedford fishing boat owner Carlos Rafael, who will receive $17,500 back after Blank's order, said he's pleased to get anything, given the industry's ongoing struggles. But he said the bigger victory is accountability for fisheries' officers.
"Even if I didn't get any money, the world is watching them," he said. "Before nobody was watching them. ... Before they were like the Gestapo. Before you were (automatically) guilty, the party was over."
The 15-month investigation covered cases between March 1994 and February 2010. It included interviews with people who absorbed five-, six- and even seven-figure fines for violations ranging from paperwork problems to allegedly fishing in closed areas. A total of 93 cases were reviewed, and the commerce secretary ordered money returned or debt forgiven in 27 cases — 23 of which originated in the Northeast.
In a memo accompanying his 554-page report, special investigator Charles Swartwood said fishery police and attorneys sometimes assessed unreasonable penalties or jacked up fines to pressure fishermen to settle at lesser amounts.
Blank said in the memo that enforcement officers who abused their power were the exception and noted the complaints verified by Swartwood in both reports make up less than 1 percent of the enforcement work done during the review period.
"This decision concludes the department's review of past cases, but our commitment to strong, effective and trusted fisheries law enforcement will continue," she wrote.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry said the second report again confirms enforcement "horror stories" he's long heard from fishermen. He added the money can't make up for the harm done to businesses, but getting the truth out can help rebuild damaged relationships with NOAA.
Dan Sobien, head of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, a union that represents fishery enforcement officials, said his members were simply enforcing penalties that Congress established.
"This report is a politically driven result of a politically driven witch hunt," he said. "All of the prosecutorial decisions criticized in these reports were legal, consistent with (NOAA)'s policies, and within the context of a legal judicial system."
The largest amount ordered returned Friday was $373,500 to the two primary shareholders of a New Bedford-based seafood business, who were accused of accepting illegally caught fish and interfering with the subsequent investigation. Swartwood found NOAA used the fact the two were trying to sell their business as leverage to force a settlement.
In another case, a fisherman had to pay $10,000 for failing to transmit his position while fishing, though he explained a wave had washed through his window and disabled his computer.
Rafael was fined $25,000 after authorities said the holes were too small in the twine at the top of his scallop net, through which fish can escape. The violation was accidental and resulted in $29.50 worth of unintentionally caught fish, the report said.
Swartwood was appointed by former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in 2010, after a report by the Commerce department's inspector general revealed dubious and disproportionate penalties against Northeast fishermen.
The IG's probe also showed former top fisheries cop Dale Jones had wrongly ordered documents shredded during the investigation. And it said the millions in penalties paid by fishermen were used on questionable expenditures, including a luxury undercover boat.
NOAA has since changed its law enforcement leadership and made reforms to improve accountability in how penalties and fines are handled.
Swartwood completed the second report after Locke agreed in March 2011 to allow Swartwood to hear more complaints.
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