EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Opinion

October 2, 2012

'Probe' of fishing fund not truly independent

The Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund’s naming of former state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger to carry out an investigation into its own “governance, policies and operations” might seem like a good move — one that could clear up the clouds raised last winter by fishermen who voiced conflict-of-interest and concerns to Gloucester’s two state lawmakers.

Harshbarger, after all, has extensive experience both as attorney general and private attorney dealing with regulatory and fiscal issues involving nonprofit organizations. And that fits the fishing preservation fund, which largely serves as a commercial fishing permit bank handling the $12 million in mitigation money granted to fishermen as compensation for having a liquified natural gas terminal plunked down in the middle of some of the regional’s most lucrative fishings grounds five years ago.

But it doesn’t take much looking beneath the surface to find all sorts of red flags and questions marks regarding a purported “investigation” that is not at all as it seems.

First, with all due respect to Harshbarger, he has been hired by a board that has brought him on board to investigate itself. That’s a far cry from the “independent” probe the fishing preservation group claimed in its own press release last week. And it stops far short of any real response to the February letter from state Sen. Bruce Tarr and Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, who suggested legal counsel on conflict-of-interest and ethics constraints for nonprofits — adding that “seeking the advice of the Charities Division of the Attorney General’s Office may be appropriate under the circumstances.”

Also, there’s no indication that, if Harshbarger finds potential problems with the governance, policies or operations of his latest client, any of those problems will ever be conveyed to the public, including to fishermen who have raised questions regarding the fund. David Guarino, spokesman for the preservation fund and its close cousin, the Northeast Seafood Coalition, which manages the fishermen’s sectors and under NOAA’s job-killing catch share system, said the fund is “committed to fully communicating whatever actions it decides to take.” But he stopped short of saying the board is committed to making public the expected Harshbarger report itself. That’s a problem.

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