Vito Giacalone, president of the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund , has been cleared of any wrongdoing by former attorney general L. Scott Harshbarger after a three-month investigation.
But that does not mean Giacalone is happy with what he found in Harshbarger’s report. In fact, he said, he was astonished to read — for the first time — details of the allegations against him, such as charges of misappropriation of funds and exerting improper influence on fishermen.
“There’s stuff in this report that shocked me,” Giacalone said.
The fund hired Harshbarger in October after state Senator Bruce Tarr and state Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, both of Gloucester, sent the group a letter suggesting it seek legal advice regarding questions that had been circulating in the fishing community for months.
Some fishermen were particularly concerned that there might be a conflict of interest in Giacalone’s roles as fund president, commercial fisherman, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition , and owner of the property that houses a local seafood auction run by his sons.
“It was all about getting to the bottom of these vague but very serious allegations,” Giacalone said.
The investigation, however, concluded that “there is simply no credible basis to support the allegations, and, to the contrary, they are without merit,” Harshbarger said.
The exoneration of the fund and Giacalone did not surprise Al Cottone, who has been a Gloucester commercial fisherman for 30 years. However, like Giacalone, he was stunned by the details of the allegations.
“I read the report and my head almost exploded,” he said. “It was like mud-slinging in a high school locker room.”
Russell Sherman, who has been fishing out of Gloucester for 43 years, agreed with the report’s analysis that the economic pressures squeezing fishermen have exacerbated friction within the industry.
“After a while, when you never win, you snap like a mad dog,” he said.
Others, however, are more skeptical of the report’s findings.
Paul Muniz, a local lawyer named in the report as one of the fund’s most vocal critics, said he does not believe the report got all of its facts straight. Muniz, who describes himself as an advocate for the fishermen, according to the report, expressed “concerns about the report’s accuracy in some important respects, and [Harshbarger] has agreed to conduct a further review,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Both the fund and the seafood coalition, the report states, have policies in place to ensure that potential conflicts of interest do not become actual cases of divided loyalties. Furthermore, the investigation uncovered no evidence that Giacalone ever used his leadership roles to benefit himself or his sons.
Harshbarger recommended several steps the fund could take to improve its governance and communications. The report advised doubling the size of its board of directors, making its internal processes more transparent, and retaining ongoing legal counsel.
The investigation found near-unanimous agreement that the fund plays a vital role in the local fishing industry. It was started in 2007, using $12 million intended to mitigate the loss of fishing grounds because of the new liquefied natural gas terminal that was built off the coast of Gloucester.
The fund uses the money to buy fishing permits, then leases them to local fishermen, increasing the amount of fish they are allowed to land.
“The fund is the guard against permits being sold outside of Gloucester to the highest bidder,” said Mayor Carolyn Kirk. “To have the report clear the board . . . is vital for the industry in Gloucester.”
The original accusations emanated mainly from a small group of critics, the report said, but were then publicized in what Harshbarger described as an “unfounded media blitz.”
Daniel Bubb of Long Island, N.Y, a former Gloucester fisherman, questioned the findings’ objectivity because the fund itself paid for the investigation.
“How can you even consider that a report?” he asked.
But Harshbarger defended the report’s impartiality.
“Any reasonable person would come to the same conclusions that we did,” he said.
The fund has not released the cost of the investigation, though Giacalone describes it as “very substantial.” Spending the money, which could otherwise have been used to acquire more permits for local fishermen, was regrettable but necessary, Sherman said.
Giacalone does not expect the results of the investigation to silence his critics.
Though tensions are still high in some corners of the community, Giacalone and many of the city’s other fishermen are ready to move forward and focus on the issues facing the industry, they said.
“With all the problems we’re facing, there’s no use in dwelling,” said Cottone.