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Originally published Saturday, June 30, 2012 at 8:00 PM

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Northwest's top federal fisheries cop removed from office

Vicki Nomura, the special agent in charge of law enforcement for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, has been removed from her position while internal government investigators look into the operations of her office, sources say.

Seattle Times environment reporter

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The special agent in charge of federal fish cops in the Northwest has been removed from her position while internal government investigators pore over documents from her Seattle office, sources say.

Vicki Nomura, who has overseen law enforcement for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle for a decade, was abruptly replaced in mid-May by an official from the agency's headquarters in Silver Spring, Md.

Her office was the subject of attention earlier this year when it was disclosed that one of her agents had paid $300,000 for a luxury boat without following proper bidding procedure, then used the boat for social outings with friends and family.

Officials at the Fisheries Service declined to comment on the latest investigation. An email written by the agency's new director of law enforcement, Bruce Buckson, to his staff said Nomura "has been temporarily detailed to HQ staff for an undetermined length of time."

But several sources with knowledge of the situation said the agency's head of law enforcement told staff in Seattle that the U.S. Commerce Department's inspector general was conducting an internal investigation of Nomura and of operations in Seattle.

The focus of the review was not clear, but staff members were told to avoid contact with Nomura.

One former agent, now retired from government service, even called the agency's headquarters last week to share information about his tenure in Seattle. He was put in touch with internal investigators who agreed to pass his contact information to the inspector general conducting the investigation.

A spokesman for the inspector general's office said the agency could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation.

The Fisheries Service is a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Nomura's section of the agency is a law-enforcement branch that employs 111 special agents with most of the same police powers as FBI agents.

Fisheries agents police commercial fishing and the illegal trade in fish and marine mammals, from poaching of endangered species to international smuggling of everything from whale teeth to shark fins. There are 12 special agents in Seattle.

In the last two years, the Fisheries Service's national law-enforcement program has been the subject of several scathing audits, focused primarily on leadership in its Maryland headquarters and on issues in New England, where agents were accused of bullying commercial fishermen, conducting heavy handed raids on fish markets and mismanaging an asset-forfeiture fund.

The reviews criticized agents for threatening fishermen cited for violating fishing rules with extravagant fines — sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — if the fishermen contested the citations.

The agency's previous top law-enforcement officer, Dale Jones, was shifted to a new job after he was accused of shredding documents. His superiors have said the shredding was part of a routine paperwork purge.

The Northwest office largely escaped attention until February, when U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass. released results of an earlier internal investigation of the Seattle office by Commerce's inspector general.

The IG found that in 2008, while Nomura was in charge, one of her managers spent $300,000 on a 35-foot Boston whaler ostensibly to spy on whale-watching tours. But the manager bought the boat without going through a proper bidding process and held barbecues, took friends and family members across Puget Sound to restaurants and resorts, and used the boat for what a visitor called "a pleasure cruise."

Ultimately, the boat was used for official purposes for just 119 hours.

The heavily redacted documents detailing that investigation state that an unnamed female manager in the office confronted the high-level agent who bought the boat about potential misuse of government property, which he denied.

But the manager did not make a record of the accusations or refer the matter to headquarters, as required. Nomura was the only woman in leadership in that office — and both her deputies were men.

It's not clear if the current investigation is connected to the purchase or operation of the boat.

Nomura, 49, has been part of some the Northwest's most storied investigations. In the late 1990s, she posed as "Tori," secretary to an undercover informant who bought and sold shellfish. She secretly recorded phone calls to a Las Vegas fish broker who illegally bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of geoduck. The Vegas broker tried to hire a hit man to rough up a rival clam salesman, and the broker eventually wound up in federal prison.

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

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