Commerce secretary denies review of fishermen cases

By Jay Lindsay
Associated Press / January 28, 2011

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The federal commerce secretary has denied a request by Northeast lawmakers who lobbied him to allow more fishermen accused of breaking the law to have their cases reviewed for fairness.

Secretary Gary Locke also refused to freeze pending sanctions against fishermen while a special investigator he appointed considers whether several questionable penalties imposed by fishery police are justified, according to a memo dated Tuesday.

Locke appointed retired judge Charles Swartwood last year to look into the cases, after a review by his department’s inspector general of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s law enforcement office.

The review found financial mismanagement, abusive treatment of fishermen, and the use of high-pressure tactics to force them to settle claims. It also highlighted 19 questionable penalties for more scrutiny.

Massachusetts congressmen and Governor Deval Patrick asked Locke to create a “window of time’’ for other fishermen to come forward, arguing they may have previously been too intimidated to file a complaint within a system they considered biased.

But in a memo dated Tuesday, Locke said the inspector general’s office had worked hard to ferret out cases with possible abuse, interviewing 225 people, and expressed doubt large numbers of fishermen were still waiting to be heard. Locke also stressed the need for a balance between discovering wrongdoing and bringing the review to a proper end.

“The importance of finality warrants placing reasonable bounds on the cases that are eligible for review by the special master [Swartwood],’’ he said.

Lawmakers were already miffed at Locke for his denial earlier this month of a request by Patrick for emergency increases in fish catch limits. Yesterday, Representative Barney Frank called Locke’s decision “one more assault on the legitimate concerns of the fishing industry,’’ and said Locke was denying fishermen “a chance at justice.’’

He promised to bring up the decision with the White House.

The inspector general’s review of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s law enforcement office followed years of complaints by Northeast fishermen of retaliation and abusive treatment.

In his memo, Locke said Swartwood was reviewing 18 of the complaints the inspector general had flagged.