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Congress to probe fisheries body

April 10, 2008
By AUDREY McAVOY, The Associated Press
HONOLULU — The Government Accountability Office plans to investigate whether the federal advisory body responsible for protecting fisheries off Hawaii and other parts of the Pacific is properly using and accounting for government money.

The investigative arm of Congress said in a March 20 letter to U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman that it would launch a review of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.

Waxman, D-Calif., the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, had written to the GAO requesting the investigation to ‘‘verify whether the council and its executive director are properly using and accounting for government funds.’’

Waxman cited allegations made last year by Hawaii nonprofit organizations against the council. Those included charges the council improperly used federal funds to lobby lawmakers.

Both letters are posted on the committee’s Web site.

The GAO said it would start the study around August when it expects staff with the required skills will be available.

Kitty Simonds, the council’s executive director, said she did not know what the agency would investigate.

‘‘We’re ready to fully cooperate and answer any questions the GAO may have regarding the council or its use and management of federal funds,’’ she said.

A March 28 letter by council chair Sean Martin to Gene Dodaro, the acting head of the GAO, said the issues Waxman raised had been previously brought up by activists.

‘‘The council believes the complaints lodged by those groups are unfounded and do not warrant further investigation,’’ Martin’s letter said.

William Aila, a member of the Waianae Boat Fishing Club who has complained about the council’s alleged use of federal funds for lobbying, said the investigation would be good for transparency in government.

Peter Young, a council member, consultant and the former director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, didn’t comment on the GAO’s investigation.

But Young said he had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain copies of the council’s budget and meeting minutes from recent years because the council wouldn’t give the documents to him.

Young said he wanted to see the materials to make sure government funds were being spent appropriately and efficiently.

He received the documents a few weeks ago but said he hasn’t had enough time to review all of them yet. He believes most, if not all, of the materials he requested under FOIA were sent to him.

‘‘Things like budget and minutes of meetings are the types of things that every member of the public expects a government agency to provide without hesitation,’’ Young said. ‘‘It has been frustrating and I’m hopeful that we can get a clear understanding of how federal money is being spent.’’

Simonds said she was unaware Young was unable to get hold of documents he asked for and believed he picked up a copy of the budget at the council office. She added that as a council member, Young receives whatever budget reports the council produces.

Young is currently one of eight council members appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to represent fishing and community interests. From 2003-2007, he represented the state of Hawaii on the council when he headed the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The council is responsible for protecting fishery resources in the U.S. exclusive economic zones around western Pacific islands, including Hawaii, Guam, the Northern Marianas and American Samoa.


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