Inspector: US fishery officer shredded documents
Inspector: Top US fishery officer shredded documents during probe into enforcement of rules
By Jay Lindsay, Associated Press Writer , On Wednesday March 3, 2010, 8:09 pm
BOSTON (AP) -- The inspector general for the U.S. Department of Commerce said Wednesday that the nation's top fishery cop destroyed documents while his office was under investigation for possible unfair enforcement of fishery laws.
Inspector General Todd Zinser said that Dale Jones, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's law enforcement office, ordered up to 140 files destroyed after IG staffers met with him to explain the scope of their review.
"I was surprised about it," Zinser said in testimony in Washington, D.C., before the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife. "I guess what came to my mind ... was I wonder what the office of law enforcement would do if a fishing company that they were investigating had done the same thing during the course of their investigation."
NOAA officials and a spokeswoman for Jones' office did not immediately return The Associated Press' requests for comment Wednesday. NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, who also testified before the subcommittee, said she was concerned when she learned about the shredding Monday.
"It does not look good," Lubchenco said.
Lubchenco said Zinser advised her to keep Jones in his current post until the investigation into the document shredding was complete. Zinser said it would be done within 30 days.
Last June, Lubchenco ordered a review of NOAA law enforcement after steady complaints from New England fishermen alleging retaliation and arbitrary, excessive fines by officers enforcing the nation's complex fishery laws.
Zinser said that after his staffers met with Jones to discuss the review his office received an anonymous tip that the files had been destroyed at the enforcement agency's offices in Silver Spring, Md. He said his office also received a call about it on the IG hot line the day the files were shredded but didn't process it until after the documents were gone.
It wasn't immediately clear when Jones ordered the files destroyed or what they contained. The inspector general's office didn't immediately return a request for comment Wednesday.
Jones told Zinser's staff that his office had been planning to get rid of the files for more than a year, Zinser said.
"He expressed to my staff disbelief that anybody would be suspicious that such a shredding operation occurred," Zinser said.
Zinser said Jones' office provided a list of about 180 files that were destroyed but the IG's office found 40 of them.
Democratic Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, chairwoman of the subcommittee, said Wednesday that Jones should step aside until the IG's investigation into his office is complete.
"As the top cop at NOAA and a longtime investigator himself, Dale Jones must be acutely aware that shredding documents during a federal investigation raises serious questions about his commitment to a full and fair look at all the facts," said Bordallo, of Guam.
Jones has been under heavy criticism since a January report by the inspector general. The report found that abusive treatment of fishermen was not widespread but that Northeast fishermen were given double the fines of other regions and the process for penalizing violators appeared arbitrary and unfair.
The report questioned the heavy presence of criminal investigators in an agency that deals mainly with civil fines, which fishermen say feeds a perception the agency views them as criminals.
It also ordered a forensic audit of how penalties collected from fishermen were used.
Jones said during a separate congressional hearing Tuesday in Gloucester that he hired only the best-qualified investigators and that the money was spent according to NOAA rules.