They want to know how Wespac will be held accountable for previous, “misspent” funds and for its spending going forward.

Federal fisheries officials have yet to respond to members of Congress who asked nearly three months ago how they plan to better oversee and hold accountable the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council following an audit finding financial mismanagement.

The influential council, known as Wespac, still hasn’t paid back more than $837,000 as required late last year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, officials said. Those dollars were among more than $1.2 million in questionable and opaque spending found in a 2021 federal audit.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case of Hawaii and three congressional members representing the West Coast and U.S. Pacific territories pressed NOAA Administrator Richard Spinrad in a May 10 letter on what steps his agency will take to hold Wespac accountable for its “misspent funds.”

Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds during a 2019 Congressional hearing. A group of Congressmen are still waiting to hear back from NOAA on their continued concerns regarding lax oversight and accountability of Wespac.

Case spokesman Nestor Garcia said Tuesday that Case’s office has been in touch with NOAA regarding the issues raised but that “there’s nothing to report as yet.”

“I’ll leave it at that,” Garcia added.

Meanwhile, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service said in a statement Friday that “we are aware of the letter and will respond through the appropriate channels.”

Wespac has proposed a payment schedule using future federal funds and a debt-forgiveness waiver as ways to address the council’s required repayment. 

Case along with Reps. Raul Gijalva, Jared Huffman and Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan called those approaches “wholly inadequate,” and said they would “result in zero accountability for an egregious act of misspent taxpayer dollars.”

The four congressmen further raised concerns to Spinrad ahead of a series of public scoping meetings later that month on the proposed Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Wespac staff has historically worked behind the scenes to help organize rallies against such expanded protection areas, they said. 

Wespac should work with NOAA on such proposals, but it shouldn’t engage in “improper grassroots lobbying,” the congressmen said. They further asked how NOAA planned to uphold such lobbying prohibitions against Wespac.

Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds referred questions on the audit and Wespac’s repayment status last week to NOAA. She said via email that Wespac is awaiting a response from the U.S. Department of Commerce on its proposed reimbursement and debt-forgiveness plans.

Simonds added that Wespac’s authority includes advising the Secretary of Commerce when existing conservation “measures may be adequate and additional conservation measures may not be necessary.”

Regarding the assertions of improper lobbying, Simonds said that “public outreach is an important component of the council’s function, so it may consider the input of an informed citizenry.”

Read the congressional letter here:

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