Seven days after President Obama nominated him as ambassador to China, Commerce Secretary Gary F. Locke publicly reversed an earlier decision that adversely affected some Massachusetts fishermen, constituents of Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry. Mr. Locke made the change after two weeks of intense lobbying by Mr. Kerry, who will chair his confirmation hearing Thursday.
Mr. Locke, whose department regulates fishing within 200 miles of the U.S. coast, agreed to two major concessions sought by Mr. Kerry for fishermen accused of violations who felt they had been victims of overzealous enforcement and excessive penalties by federal officials.
He agreed to give fishermen who had not filed complaints another chance to have their cases reviewed for fairness by a special investigator and to possibly get their fines returned or reduced. He also agreed the fishermen could ask to stay the payment of any pending fines while a special investigator reviewed the cases.
Since October, Mr. Kerry and others in the Massachusetts delegation had been seeking a 45-day window so fishermen could ask for the reviews. In January, Mr. Locke issued a written decision denying the request, but he publicly changed his stance in March after his nomination. Mr. Kerry heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has to confirm all ambassador nominees.
"This is typical of the give and take we see when it comes to negotiating appointments," said Craig Holman, a public affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a watchdog group. "It doesn't rise to the level of being scandalous, but it does show politics as usual on Capitol Hill."
Kerry spokeswoman Whitney Smith said there was "absolutely zero connection" between the senator's work for Massachusetts fishermen and the Locke nomination. She said any suggestion to the contrary "is pure fantasy," adding that "Secretary Locke will be an outstanding ambassador and it's no surprise that Sen. Kerry supports his nomination."
Shannon Gilson, a spokeswoman for Mr. Locke, also said the decision reversal and Mr. Kerry's role as chairman were not connected. She said Mr. Locke changed his mind after speaking with former federal Judge Charles Swartwood III, who served as the special investigator.
"Judge Swartwood raised broad concerns based on his review of nearly three dozen cases," she said. "Secretary Locke decided to act immediately to provide those fishermen who believe they have been wronged with an opportunity to have their complaints heard."
In September, the Commerce Department's Office of Inspector General issued a report saying federal fishing regulators within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had, in some cases, engaged in "abusive conduct" and had levied excessive fines and penalties.
Mr. Locke then asked Judge Swartwood to review some 30 cases cited in the IG's report and, earlier this month, ordered that $650,000 in fines be returned to 11 Northeast fishermen or businesses. Mr. Locke said NOAA had "overstepped the bounds of propriety and fairness."
But some officials at NOAA, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the case, said "numerous false allegations" and "factual errors" had been allowed to stand in the special investigator's report without a challenge from the NOAA leadership.
One NOAA official said the agency's leadership had recommended changes in enforcement and those proposals were going forward, but that no apologies or reparations were warranted.
In early March, Mr. Kerry sought to have Mr. Locke's January decision overturned, about the time the commerce secretary was nominated for the ambassadorship. He met with Mr. Locke and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco to plead his case, and called White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley, a former commerce secretary.
During that same time, Mr. Kerry raised the issue at a Senate hearing on fishing policy, wrote a letter to Mr. Locke and Ms. Lubchenco urging action, spoke again with Mr. Locke and met with Ms. Lubchenco of NOAA "to discuss the dire needs of Massachusetts fishermen."
On March 9 the nomination was announced and a week later Mr. Locke publicly reversed himself, giving 80 fishermen and businesses a month to file new complaints and seek the return of fines.
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