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Originally published February 17, 2012 at 9:49 PM | Page modified February 18, 2012 at 9:33 AM

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Luxury NOAA undercover boat got more use as pleasure cruiser

Federal fish cops in Seattle bought a $300,000 luxury boat to spy on whale-watching tours, but it was used as "a fishermen-funded party boat for bureaucrats," said U.S. Sen. Scott Brown.

Seattle Times environment reporter

Information

NOAA timeline of changes to its law-enforcement program: www.noaa.gov/lawenforcementupdates/timeline.html.

Inspector general's report

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Federal fish cops in Seattle bought a $300,000 luxury boat to spy on whale-watching tours — but didn't go through an appropriate bidding process, held barbecues onboard, ferried friends and family across Puget Sound to restaurants and resorts, and used the boat for what one visitor called "a pleasure cruise."

When confronted, one federal employee in Seattle misled inspectors about how the vessel was used, and one interfered with federal investigators, according to an internal investigation by the Commerce Department. Those documents were released Friday by U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass.

At issue is a 35-foot, 14-passenger boat purchased by federal agents with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) using money seized from fishermen who violated the law.

The 2008 purchase wasn't illegal, according to the Commerce Department, but federal agents manipulated the acquisition process and misrepresented the urgency and need for the vessel.

The fisheries service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has a law-enforcement branch employing special agents with the same powers as the FBI. They police the Endangered Species Act and other crimes against marine creatures, from poaching to fishing commercially in closed waters or out of season.

The boat ultimately was used for just 119 hours, according to the documents, and remains moored in Western Washington.

"The sad truth is that it was a fishermen-funded party boat for bureaucrats," Brown said on the Senate floor Friday.

Blistering reviews

Brown, a harsh critic of NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco's environmental policies, has repeatedly called for her resignation after a series of scathing inspector general (IG) reports in 2010 that criticized heavy-handed fisheries enforcement and mismanagement of an asset-seizure fund.

The blistering reviews focused almost exclusively on fisheries agents in New England and managers in D.C., one of whom was reassigned after shredding documents.

But this week Brown received a heavily redacted follow-up report about misuse of a Boston Whaler bought by the Seattle law-enforcement branch.

In a statement, NOAA officials said the agency has since "conducted a top-to-bottom overhaul of its enforcement program. We hired new leadership, implemented new policies to ensure consistent enforcement practices nationwide, and put in place better accounting and oversight" of its asset-forfeiture program.

The Seattle office in 2006 sought to buy a $146,000 boat to police halibut fishermen and to clandestinely keep tabs on San Juan Island whale-watching tours. Agents wanted to make sure the tours weren't harassing endangered orcas, but feared tour operators were well-behaved when agents approached in marked boats.

But after shopping online and at boat shows and talking to other cops, one agent instead submitted a request for the Whaler. The 345 Conquest comes standard with a 20-inch flat-screen TV, hardwood cabin floors and vanity countertops, which cost more than twice as much as the original request: $300,787.

Questions were quickly raised.

"I don't understand from the document exactly what NOAA is purchasing the boat for," one agency-procurement official wrote in 2008. "Why is this exact model the only one that meets the minimum requirements?"

That official didn't even know it had been purchased until approached by investigators two years later. He said the whole process was "wired from the start to get that one boat."

Cruising Puget Sound

The first time a fisheries-service agent boarded the boat in June 2008, he brought his wife and a friend. They ran out of gas, called Seattle Harbor Patrol and had to be towed back to the Ship Canal.

They refueled and motored the boat through the Ballard Locks to the dockside Boat Shed Restaurant in Bremerton, had dinner and then returned to Seattle.

A month later the same agent took the boat to Poulsbo for lunch and went back to Seattle. He picked up some friends who brought aboard a six-pack of beer and sped down to Gig Harbor for dinner at Tides Tavern. One passenger told investigators the trip was "every bit a pleasure cruise."

A few days later, the same employee briefly got stranded in the boat in a shipping lane while taking his wife to a restaurant in Everett.

Twice that summer, while the boat was moored at Elliott Bay Marina, a fisheries-service employee grilled burgers and hot dogs with a small group that included at least two other special agents. A supervisor told an employee his wife could come aboard any time and "kick back and watch TV." One agent later told investigators the gatherings kept up the vessel's appearance as a recreational boat and not an unmarked-police vessel.

Once in August 2008, the boat ferried around a special agent's visiting parents, eventually dropping them off at the Semiahmoo Resort in Blaine, Whatcom County. The boat that day blew out a $10,000 engine as a result of what investigators called "operator error." The boat's first use in an actual undercover capacity didn't take place until the next summer.

When internal investigators learned about the boat in 2010, one employee gave such contradictory answers, investigators called the statement "disingenuous and not credible."

NOAA officials, in a statement, said, "NOAA cannot discuss the nature or results of specific personnel actions. Appropriate action has been or will be taken."

The agency has since banned use of the boat and is in the process of surplusing it, agency spokesman Connie Barclay said in an email.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @craigawelch.

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