It’s been a year since a federal audit found more than $1 million in questionable spending by the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, yet there’s still no ruling on how much the influential panel might ultimately have to pay back.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration division responsible for overseeing spending is still working through the audit findings on Wespac, officials said. The council guides fishing policies in over 1.5 million square miles of ocean.

“NOAA’s Grants Management Division continues to work through the resolution process to develop a final determination,” Stephanie Bennett, a directorate division chief with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, said in a recent email.

Fishing boats dock in American Samoa. Wespac spending has been under heavy scrutiny, and federal officials say the verdict on what the council will have to pay back should land in the coming months. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Wespac should expect a response from that NOAA division sometime in the coming months, Bennett added.

The 46-page audit report was completed by the Commerce Department’s Office of the Inspector General over an 18-month period, from 2020 to 2021. It stemmed from a request by four congressmen following a Civil Beat investigation in 2019 into the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund.

Overall, the OIG found $1.24 million in questionable expenses by Wespac from 2010 through 2020 via that fund. Wespac had spent $7.4 million total from the fund during that period.

According to the newsletter Environment Hawaii, NOAA’s Grants Management division director, Arlene Porter Simpson, informed Wespac in a February letter that it had endorsed the audit findings “to the last dollar,” and that the council should consider the letter the first official notification of a debt owed to NOAA.

The news outlet also reported that Wespac, which is publicly funded, was seeking legal counsel in June to help the council analyze the OIG report and respond to it.

Wespac spokeswoman Amy Vandehey declined in an email last month to directly provide details of whether the council had hired counsel and if so, at what cost. That request to Wespac, she said, should instead be routed through a federal Freedom of Information Act request, which is pending.

Meanwhile, the person serving as regional administrator for NOAA’s Pacific Islands Regional Office at the time of the Wespac spending, Michael Tosatto, is now working on a special Commerce Department project to help make the country’s environmental review process faster and more efficient, according to NOAA spokeswoman Stefanie Gutierrez.

“The National Marine Fisheries Service deals with a substantial portion of the Department’s permitting workload, and in this context Tosatto brings a wealth of real world experience and applied leadership in the permitting arena to this effort,” Gutierrez said.

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