Senator John Kerry today introduced legislation to protect Massachusetts fishermen hit by large, out of pocket legal fees they incurred defending themselves against excessive fines and retaliatory law enforcement actions by the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA).
Kerry's legislation, the Fisheries Fee Fairness Act of 2011, would use dollars from the Department of Commerce's Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF), which typically funds NOAA's enforcement operation but has been subject to mismanagement and abuse for years, to reimburse the legal fees and costs incurred by fishermen and businesses whose fines were remitted by the Secretary of Commerce at the recommendation of Special Master Swartwood.
"Massachusetts fishermen suffered huge economic harm and amassed gigantic massive legal bills defending themselves against unfair fines and retaliatory actions during the Bush Administration," said Sen. Kerry. "After I asked for an Inspector General's report, the Commerce Department investigated and the new team there very forthrightly said that mistakes had been made and that the penalties were excessive. We've made some progress rebuilding the relationship between our fishermen and the federal government, but these huge legal bills haven't gone away. This is about putting money back in working peoples' pockets that should never have been taken away. I am going to work to pass this bill in the Commerce Committee."
The Fisheries Fee Fairness Act of 2011 would give the Secretary of Commerce 90 days to determine whether to provide a reimbursement and the amount of the reimbursement. Reimbursements would be capped at $200,000 per person or business.
The Special Master is currently reviewing a second round of cases brought forth by fishermen who believe they were inappropriately penalized by NOAA enforcement agents. Under Senator Kerry's legislation, fishermen in this group would also qualify to have their legal fees and costs reimbursed if the Secretary of Commerce remits their fines.