BOSTON >> A luxury undercover boat purchased with fines collected from fishermen was used by federal fishery police to visit dockside restaurants with friends and for high-speed "pleasure cruising," according to documents released Friday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration bought the 35-foot boat for about $300,000, so its law enforcement officers could covertly monitor whether whale watch boats in Washington’s Puget Sound were harassing the animals.
But the documents indicate the boat was rarely used for official business.
"It was a fishermen-funded party boat for bureaucrats," U.S. Sen. Scott Brown said on the Senate floor Friday.
Brown’s office obtained the U.S. Commerce Department’s Inspector General’s review of the purchase after a Freedom of Information Act request.
The boat’s purchase was first disclosed in July 2010, as part of an audit by the inspector general on how the millions in fines paid by fishermen were being spent. The audit uncovered broad mismanagement of the fines, which can reach six figures. NOAA has since reformed how the fines are monitored and handled.
On Friday, Brown said the luxury boat was a symbol of NOAA’s damaged relationship with fishermen and again asked President Obama to fire NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco.
"This needs to change and accountability starts at the top," he said. "If not now, when?"
Gloucester fisherman Richard Burgess, who unsuccessfully fought an $85,000 fine he said was largely a result of a paperwork error, compared enforcement agents to the mob and said they deserved prison.
"They’re abusing hardworking fishermen’s money," he said.
NOAA said "appropriate action" has or will be taken against employees involved, though it didn’t release details, citing privacy rules.
The agency added it has fixed problems found by the inspector general by overhauling its enforcement program with new leadership, policies to ensure consistent enforcement practices nationwide and better accounting and oversight.
Agency spokeswoman Connie Barclay said Lubchenco "has always sought success for fishermen and wants to work with them to build a profitable and sustainable industry."
NOAA’s law enforcement office is charged with enforcing the nation’s complicated fisheries laws, which regulate, for example, where and with what gear fishermen can fish.
The boat was purchased in February 2008, before Lubchenco was appointed to lead NOAA. Its purpose was to blend in with whale watch boats and ensure they didn’t break federal rules by moving within 100 yards of the whales, according to the documents.
A brochure for the boat, a Boston Whaler Model 345 Conquest, says it holds 14 people and its "luxurious interior" includes a flat screen television, island bed and hardwood cabin flooring.
The report said after the boat’s June 2008 launch in Seattle, a NOAA enforcement agent — whose name was redacted — took his wife and friend to a restaurant in Bremerton, despite rules barring non-federal employee from being on board.
The agent took friends to eat at a Gig Harbor restaurant on Aug. 5, 2008, then got stranded with his wife in Puget Sound a few days later because he ran out of gas headed to another restaurant, according to the review.
The report said passengers drank beer during the Gig Harbor trip in what one passenger called "every bit a pleasure cruise," adding he’d never been on a boat that fast.
The agent used the boat when it was moored at Eliot Bay Marina to host two small barbeques with his wife, the report said.
The agent justified the restaurant trips to investigators by saying he needed to "break in" the boats and practice docking. He said he didn’t believe he had to report such trips and told investigators he thought having his wife and friends aboard was permitted.
"Our investigation found these assertions to be rationalizations lacking validity and candor," the report read.
Investigators said the boat has conducted just nine law enforcement patrols since its purchase. The vessel also appears to be a bit of a lemon. Investigators reported "numerous maintenance and mechanical problems."
Barclay said the boat isn’t currently being used because it didn’t meet federal purchasing guidelines. She said it will be offered to other government agencies and put up for sale if there are no takers.