Lois Lerner, the IRS official at the center of the current ethics storm in Washington over improper scrutiny of American political action organizations is invoking her Fifth Amendment rights today after being called to testify before a House Oversight Committee hearing. Her refusal to testify has led to some members of Congress to call for her removal from IRS duties and firing from her employment within the federal government.
Regrettably, as most members of Congress all well aware (yet probably don’t want you to know), government officials really don’t get fired.
Never gonna happen!
Take for example what happened in March of 2010, when the chairwoman of the House panel that oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called for the agency's director of law enforcement to step down in the wake of a scandal over heavy-handed fisheries enforcement. As reported in the New York Times at the time, the House Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee Chairwoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) said that NOAA Law Enforcement Director Dale Jones should be relieved of his duties given the questions as to whether or not he tried to destroy documents to avoid an even more scathing report from the Commerce Department's top investigator.
"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," Bordallo said at a subcommittee hearing. "At a time when transparency and accountability in the way our government operates is of utmost importance, this type of behavior cannot be condoned, and Mr. Jones should step aside until the IG's investigation is completed."
The Commerce Department's inspector general had earlier released a report finding serious flaws in NOAA's fisheries enforcement and law enforcement operations, describing an unbalanced system that was heavy on criminal investigation resulting in a "dysfunctional relationship" between NOAA and the fishing industry.
Rep. Bordallo’s comments before the subcommittee had come in response to new allegations from the Commerce Department’s inspector general, Todd Zinser, that Jones had authorized the destruction of more than 100 files at law enforcement headquarters in Silver Spring, MD during the investigation.
"It was not authorized by me, and when I informed NOAA leadership of what we found, they did not say they authorized it either," Zinser said of the shredding. "I was surprised by it. What came to my mind is, I wonder what the office of law enforcement would do if a fishing company they were investigating had done the same thing?"
In response to the inspector general’s report, then NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco ordered an overhaul of her fisheries department’s enforcement system, outlining 10 program changes for NOAA’s general counsel and acting fisheries administrator, Eric Schwaab.
Lubchenco also asked the department to immediately freeze all hirings of criminal investigators, institute higher-level reviews for enforcement decisions, improve data, develop an outreach strategy with fishermen and revise procedures and penalties to make sure they are consistent and clear, free from any ethical violations or bias.
Lawmakers were more dramatic in their call to action. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said Lubchenco should consider firing everyone in the law enforcement department, allowing them then to reapply for their positions, while the Times noted how other lawmakers advised Lubchenco to take special care not to let the issue slip. An earlier investigation 10 years earlier found similar abuses by NOAA fisheries enforcement personnel.
Senate Oceans and Fisheries Subcommittee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) encouraged Lubchenco to dig deeper to investigate the response, or lack thereof, to the last report. “I think you'll find that the same issues why those recommendations were not implemented will be the same reasons why these won't be, as well," Cantwell said. "We don't want to do another report in a few years and find the same issues. These are cultural barriers in an organization that need to be broken down.”
Well-said Ms. Cantwell, Mr. Begich, and Ms. Bordallo, kudos to you all.
As I’m sure any fisherman or American taxpayer must think at this point in the story, Dale Jones must be living his personal life somewhere, working in the private sector - a castoff from public service banished from public service for shredding documents during an official investigation.
Now, before you answer that, it does get better as you’ll read in the Gloucester Times of Massachusetts.
You see, not only was it the enforcement level, but a separate probe commissioned by the Department of Commerce concluded that the two NOAA attorneys (Charles Juliand and James MacDonald) who had extracted an excessive settlement from a commercial scallop fishing business owner in 2005 did the same thing years earlier to a pair of fish processors using coercive methods “with an intention to intimidate.” As reported in the Gloucester Times, a detailed narrative of how NOAA’s Gloucester-based enforcement and litigation attorneys Charles Juliand and James MacDonald improperly manipulated the system of fisheries enforcement law.
Following detailed reports back to the Commerce Department, there were formal Cabinet-level apologies to 11 businesses put in duress by wrongful actions of NOAA litigators and agents. Together, Swartwood’s two sets of case studies generated more than $2.3 million returned by the government to settle the penalty score with the fishing industry.
Obviously, with all the sequestration debate and budgetary woes in Washington DC, the paper-shredding cop and the money-grubbing attorneys responsible for these despicable government actions are gone, right? Surely the directive of leading members of Congress like Bordallo and Begich was met with swift action, the firings of Jones, Juliland and MacDonald?
Actually, no. Former NOAA Enforcement director Dale Jones was reassigned as a fisheries program specialist in the Office of Science and Technology, allowing him to keep his pay grade above the $150,000 a year mark. Juliland was reassigned to be senior councilor for natural resources where was last working on matters related to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, while MacDonald was made attorney advisor to the deputy general counsel at NOAA.
As for Ms. Lubchenco, she left NOAA earlier this year and was last seen over the weekend getting an honorary doctorate at Rutgers University where she was credited with personally credited with ending overfishing in the United States of America. Mr. Schwaab announced today that he too was leaving NOAA to take a post at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The Secretaries of Commerce who held posts during the ongoing investigations into wrongdoings at NOAA Fisheries, including Gary Locke and John Bryson are gone, while the current ‘acting’ Commerce Secretary, Rebecca Blank, will be leaving the job at the end of this month to take over as chancellor at University of Wisconsin at Madison.
So who’s in charge over at NOAA Fisheries or the United States Department of Commerce? Good question, with no simple answers. You see, back during the presidential campaign in the fall, President Obama pledged to appoint a new Secretary of Business to oversee newly-consolidated government agencies, including the Small Business Administration.
"We should have one Secretary of Business, instead of nine different departments that are dealing with things like giving loans to SBA or helping companies with exports,” the president told MSNBC during a campaign interview. “There should be a one-stop shop.”
In the week leading up to the election, White House spokesman Jay Carney indicated to reporters that the streamlining proposal would be one of Obama’s first orders of business. “The President will be engaging directly after the election in moving forward,” he said, adding that he was “very committed to that proposal.”
Six months later, there’s been no movement by the Obama administration on this new Department of Business. Meanwhile, the soon departure of the ‘acting’ Commerce Secretary Blank, following the previous departure of appointed Commerce Secretary Bryson last June, leaves a hole yet to be filled at the cabinet level. The President recently nominated Chicago billionaire Penny Pritzker for appointment to the head of the Commerce Department, though it’s expected to be a bumpy road ahead in the Senate considering the staunch opposition by labor unions unhappy about the Pritzker family’s running of Hyatt Hotels.
As for fishermen, the only ‘offshore’ action Pritzker seems aware of is the $53.6 million in income she received last year through an offshore trust in the Bahamas.
In the interim, there will be a new ‘acting’ Commerce Secretary in place just after the Memorial Day Weekend, Cameron Forbes Kerry. In addition to being the younger brother of Secretary of State John Kerry, he’s also the General Counsel of the Department of Commerce and principal legal advisor to the Secretary of Commerce where he oversees the work of over 325 lawyers in 14 offices who provide legal advice to all components of the Department.
Cameron Kerry, coincidentally, is also the Commerce Department’s chief ethics officer – and he hails from Massachusetts.
Final question, who is it that said, “We can't have the sort of hands-off, head-in-the-sand attitude that we've had over the last eight years and think somehow we're going to reverse some of these trends?” If you said then Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 when campaigning for president, you would be correct.
However, I would also accept as correct the answer, ‘whoever will be the 2016 republican challenger for president in 2016.”
Any way you look at it, we lose.
And the person who should've really been fired for all of this burdensome, vindictive and abusive government power? Well, the American people renewed his 4-year contract in November of 2012...and that's a sad, sad fact.