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.
At the center of all this are a series of questions brought last winter to Ferrante and Tarr and focusing in large part on the on the multiple roles of Gloucester fishing guru Vito Giacalone, who heads up the preservation fund and serves as policy director for the seafood coalition, boards which are supposed to be independent.
Along with Giacalone and Jackie Odell, executive director of the seafood coalition, the preservation fund board includes Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association and clerk of the seafood coalition, and Dale Brown, a former department head in the mayoral administration of John Bell, who is president of the seafood coalition board. Also, Giacalone remains an active groundfisherman, and owns Fishermen’s Wharf, which is home to the BASE Gloucester seafood auction run by Giacalone’s three sons. While actively fishing, he was also paid $72,000 as the full-time, 40-hour a week president of the preservation fund. And the fund itself leases office space at Homeport Development Corp. — a self storage facility on Witham Street where, you guessed it, Giacalone serves as president.
Look, Giacalone has done a lot for the Gloucester fishing fleet. It is he who took the bull by the horns three years ago and set up the Northeast Seafood Coalition sector system, recognizing that, with tunnel-visioned Jane Lubchenco at the helm, the catch share system was coming, and the industry had better be ready for it. But the almost inherent conflicts here cries out for oversight. And Harshbarger’s “investigation” — with the investigator paid by the probe’s own subject – sure isn’t it.
Indeed, given this response to fishermen’s and the lawmakers’ concerns, it’s time today’s AG’s office, headed by Martha Coakley, perhaps took up a probe of its own. That’s what the preservation fund, the coalition and the industry need.