Members of Congress sent a letter seeking accountability for the fishery council’s “transgressions.”

WASHINGTON — It’s been nearly two years since the U.S. Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General found that the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council misspent about $1 million in federal funds.

The problem remains, however, how to get that money back.

On Tuesday, several Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee, including Ranking Member Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Hawaii U.S. Rep. Ed Case, sent a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration demanding that officials there hold Wespac accountable for its years of inappropriate behavior.

Other signatories include U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman of California and Gregorio Sablan, the delegate who represents the Northern Mariana Islands.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case joined several of his Democratic colleagues in a letter to NOAA demanding Wespac be held accountable for misspending federal funds. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2023)

In particular, the committee members expressed concern about the council’s proposal to use federal money to pay back $837,356 it was found to have misappropriated or seek debt forgiveness through the U.S. Department of Justice.

Allowing either option, they said, would essentially amount to Wespac making taxpayers “pay twice” for its “transgressions.”

“Redirecting new federal funds to repayment or simply forgiving the misspent funds without any accountability for those who oversaw or approved such mishandling of Federal dollars will further erode the public’s trust in our government’s ability to fulfill its duties responsibly,” the letter states.

“While we understand that WPRFMC receives the totality of its funding through the federal government, NOAA must not allow the Council to conduct business as usual without accountability for those responsible.”

The council is one of eight regional bodies created by Congress to help guide fishing policy. Wespac oversees more than 1.5 million square miles of U.S. waters in the Pacific. But the quasi-governmental agency has come under increased scrutiny for its coziness with the commercial fishing industry.

Wespac has been one of the most open agitators against various ocean conservation measures, such as national monument designations like Papahanaumokuakea in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the proposed creation of a marine sanctuary around the Pacific Remote Islands.

“How did it happen that Wespac got away with misusing all of that federal money for years when they’re supposed to be overseen by NOAA?”

U.S. Rep. Ed Case

Tuesday’s letter highlighted the members’ concerns about Wespac staff for providing “behind-the-scenes lobbying services to opponents of such designations and organizing rallies in opposition.”

Wespac has long maintained that its actions do not constitute illegal lobbying.

The members of Congress still said that such activities could be deemed an improper use of federal funds.

The letter also included a list of questions that the congressmen want NOAA to answer about whether it even has the authority to provide direct oversight of the council, up to and including termination of those responsible for misspending the money and refusing to pay it back.

In an interview with Civil Beat, Case said that one of his top priorities when he came back to Congress in 2019 after a 12-year hiatus was “reining in Wespac.” 

He said he’s long had concerns about the agency and whether it was mismanaging federal funds. The inspector general’s 2021 audit only seemed to prove his suspicions. 

Still, Case said there are a number of unanswered questions, not just about Wespac, but also about NOAA and whether it is truly trying to hold the fishery council accountable for its misdeeds. 

“I think NOAA does a good job, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve a little oversight,” Case said. “After all, this happened on NOAA’s watch. How did it happen that Wespac got away with misusing all of that federal money for years when they’re supposed to be overseen by NOAA? That’s a legitimate question for Congress to ask.”

The Inspector General’s 2021 report stemmed from a request by Case, Grijalva, Huffman and Sablan following a Civil Beat investigation in 2019 into the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund. The three-part series revealed potential conflicts of interest, political favoritism and a lack of accountability as officials used federal dollars to further commercial fishing interests.

William Aila was critical of Wespac’s handling of Pacific fisheries during a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2023)

Federal investigators found $1.24 million in questionable expenses by Wespac after the 18-month audit of its fisheries fund. That amounted to one out of every $6 the regional fishery council spent over the past decade. 

NOAA determined $837,355 of that amount should be repaid after considering an appeal from Wespac. The agency said in December that its review revealed the council’s “pattern of failure to comply” with federal standards and rules governing grant awards, and that it could withhold future funding if the money wasn’t paid back.

Case and his colleagues’ letter came the same day that the oversight subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to examine the potential economic and community impacts of marine sanctuaries and monuments. 

The hearing was led by Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, who is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Gosar tried to paint the issue as one involving political overreach by Democrats and President Joe Biden in particular, who he said “continues to abuse executive authority to push his radical climate agenda with little meaningful conservation, limited benefits to marine life but at significantly higher costs and barriers for fishing activities.”

Among the witnesses called to testify was William Aila, a former chairman of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and a Native Hawaiian fisherman. 

Aila defended the use of monuments and sanctuaries to protect marine resources in the Pacific in large part because he said Wespac has repeatedly failed in this regard, citing the collapse of the lobster fishery and the near collapse of the bottomfish fishery, saying they were both “mismanaged.” 

“When one tool doesn’t work you apply another tool,” he said.

Read the letter here:

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