(CNSNews.com) - Reps. Barney Frank and John Tierney, both Massachusetts Democrats, say Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has shown hostility to the concerns of fishermen and should step down.
Among other problems, a recent inspector-general’s report found problems with the way NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement spent money raised through fines and penalties on fishermen.
Frank and Tierney – both of whom represent port cities in Massachusetts -- say tensions between Lubchenco and the fishing community have been building for months and show no sign of abating. They place the blame squarely on Lubchenco, and if she doesn’t resign, they want the Obama White House to remove her from her job.
"For too long our local fishing community has dealt with unfair regulations, treatment, and practices from officials at NOAA," Rep. Tierney said in a news release posted on his Web site Thursday. He questioned what Lubchenco and other officials at NOAA have done "to increase responsiveness to the public and Congress, hold agency representatives accountable, and take a critical look at unfair catch share regulations.
"If the current NOAA leadership is not going to commit to work with local fishermen and end the culture of no accountability at NOAA, I believe it is time for them to be replaced with leadership that will refocus on these issues, Tierney concluded.
Rep. Frank said he's been disappointed in Lubchenco's stance toward fisherman, "which seems to approach hostility." Frank said NOAA has been "badly run" -- without clear direction from Lubchenco to correct the problems at NOAA.
Some of those problems were discussed at a March 3 field hearing in Gloucester, Mass., where local fishermen raised specific examples of mistreatment by NOAA. They also voiced concern about new NOAA-imposed limits on fish catches (fish quotas).
Misuse of penalties and fines imposed on fishermen
On July 1, Rep. Tierney announced he would introduce legislation to reform NOAA's Asset Forfeiture Fund, after an inspector-general's report reveal misuse and mismanagement of that fund.
Under current law, NOAA has broad law enforcement authority, including the ability to retain the money raised from civil penalties and fines it imposes on fishermen.
The money -- collected through the Asset Forfeiture Fund -- can be used to pay for expenses directly related to investigations and civil or criminal proceedings.
But the IG's report found "clear misuse" of the fund, Tierney noted. For example, NOAA has used some of the money from penalties and fines paid by fishermen to buy cars and boats, even though there is no policy authorizing such purchases.
Tierney said the fund gives NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement "perverse incentives to target fishermen." In other words, the more fines the agency collects, the more it has to spend.
Tierney's bill would reimburse fishermen for certain legal fees if they are cleared of wrongful allegations.
Lubchenco 'deeply troubled'
In a statement released on Thursday, Lubchenco said she had reviewed the IG's report and was "deeply troubled by the way the Asset Forfeiture Fund has been handled in the past."
She said the management of the fund was transferred in February from NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement to NOAA's comptroller, who must approve all expenditures over $1,000.
"However, more actions are needed," Lubchenco said. She said she has directed various NOAA managers to develop a "corrective action plan" by July 30 to ensure proper budgeting, expenditure tracking and approvals, accounting, legal opinion, and external review.
"Once I have approved this plan, it will be implemented immediately," Lubchenco said.
She also indicated that people responsible for the problems surrounding the Asset Forfeiture Fund will be "held accountable," although no one has been fired to date.
Lubchenco did not address criticism directed at NOAA policies by New England fishermen. However, her statement did say that "Fair and effective enforcement of our nation’s fisheries laws and regulations protects fish stocks, marine mammals and the marine environment, and is essential to strong coastal communities with sustainable economies."
On Thursday, Frank told a New Bedford radio station (WBSM-AM) that Lubchenco has "failed in her duty to the fishermen" and "it's time for Lubchenco to go."
At best, she has been inattentive to the needs of the fishing industry, Frank said.
On another front, Reps. Tierney and Frank said they plan to file a legal brief in support of a lawsuit filed against new federal fishing regulations.