Recap: Cause of Action Institute at Seafood Expo North America 2019

Earlier this month, Cause of Action Institute joined more than 20,000 members of the fishing industry from across the globe at the 2019 Seafood Expo North America in Boston. For years, Cause of Action has monitored and brought legal challenges against the overregulation of our nation’s fisheries and its negative economic impact on fishing communities – especially small business and family owned operations. However, after three days of speaking with industry insiders last week, the breadth of the harm caused by administrative state overreach continues to appall us.

We spoke with people from nearly every corner of the seafood industry who are severely impacted by the government regulations that plague this field: trade restrictions such as tariffs or quotas, the cost of complying with regulations such as the Jones Act, one size fits all or outdated regulations that benefit certain companies at the expense of others, and offshore development that has the potential to bring many companies’ business to a standstill. Many of the visitors we engaged with were small business owners who fear regulations like industry-funded monitoring will run them out of business entirely.

Cause of Action was fortunate to be able to reconnect with former clients David Goethel and John Haran. For David, John, and many members of their respective communities, fishing is not only their livelihood, but also a large part of the culture of their respective communities. When faced with economic devastation from regulations like the Omnibus Amendment, the way of life that communities have spent years building is also threatened with destruction.

Cause of Action Staff with former client David Goethel

Stories like those we encountered last week serve as an important reminder of the direct consequences posed by arbitrary and excessive executive power. American’s should be free to live prosperous lives and reach their highest potential without the interference of an overbearing administrative state, and Cause of Action looks forward to continuing to strive towards this goal in the commercial fishing industry, among many other affected fields.

Mallory Koch is a communications associate at Cause of Action Institute.

CoA Institute Sends Letter to Secretary Ross Requesting Public Confirmation of Controversial Fishery Regulation

The importance of an open and transparent government is rooted in the federal government’s ability to choose winners and losers, create barriers to economic freedom, and limit personal liberties. Family-owned fishing firms in New England recently had their economic freedom put at-risk when it was revealed that the government had secretly approved a proposal to impose new, and statutorily unauthorized, costs on their fishing operations. That’s why Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) sent a letter to U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross yesterday, criticizing his office’s lack of transparency and inadequate analysis surrounding the controversial fishery management regulations.

In January, CoA Instituted published a previously unreported letter, which revealed that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S Department of Commerce (Commerce) approved the New England Industry-Funded Monitoring Omnibus Amendment (Omnibus Amendment), but without providing any reasoned responses to public comments.  The approval also came in the midst of a second public comment period for implementing regulations. The Omnibus Amendment is estimated to impose new costs of up to $810-per-day on certain herring fishermen.  These costs, which will be used to fund a third-party monitoring scheme, would have  devastating economic consequences—especially for small and family-owned fishing operations.

Commerce’s failure to address the valid and pressing concerns raised by several interested parties in the first round of public comments, including questions about the statutory authorization for industry-funded monitoring raised by CoA Institute, is particularly egregious.  CoA Institute has repeatedly argued that the government lacks statutory authority to force commercial fishermen on the East Coast to pay for at-sea monitoring. The Secretary of Commerce was responsible for reviewing the Omnibus Amendment for compliance with applicable laws as well as considering public comments. The Secretary appears to have failed to do so in this case.  Government officials also are expected to conduct rulemaking in a manner that promotes accountability and transparency.  This is meant to protect the openness of the regulatory process. That transparency was seriously lacking in this instance.

CoA Institute’s letter requests that Secretary Ross (1) publicly confirm his approval of the Omnibus Amendment (2) and publish responses to the issues raised during the initial comment period. CoA Institute also requests that Commerce disapprove the implementing regulations for the Omnibus Amendment, which are expected to be finalized later this spring.  We look forward to a response addressing these concerns.

A copy of the letter to Secretary Ross can be found here. Additional background on this issue can be found here, here, and here.

Government Officials Ignore Public Comment, Create New Financial Burden on Fisherman

In a letter acquired by Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute), it appears that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Department of Commerce have approved a controversial fishery management proposal while ignoring public comments critical of the plan. This approval also seems to have been issued before the close of a second public comment period for implementing regulations. The NOAA rulemaking is expected to seriously impact commercial fishing on the Eastern seaboard by applying costly new burdens on fishermen.

The Background

In September 2018, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), in coordination with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a component of NOAA, sought approval for a controversial set of regulatory measures known as the New England Industry-Funded Monitoring Omnibus Amendment. The Omnibus Amendment would create a new financial burden on fishermen by mandating that they pay as much as $810 per sea day for at-sea monitoring in the Atlantic herring fishery. It would also create a standardized process for introducing similar costly monitoring requirements to other New England fisheries.

CoA Institute argued in its initial public comment on the Omnibus Amendment that the burdensome monitoring would unfairly and unlawfully restrict economic opportunity in the fishery. Aside from the questionable legal authority to create this effective new tax on fishermen, the $810-per-sea-day cost has the potential to wipe out the narrow margins that small-scale fishermen rely on to survive.

Following the publication of the notice of availability for the Omnibus Amendment, but before any approval decision was made, the agency oddly proposed implementing regulations in November 2018. Again, CoA Institute filed a public comment in opposition to the regulations.

CoA Institute’s second comment reiterated the legal infirmities with the funding scheme and, among other things, highlighted fatal flaws in the rulemaking’s Environmental Assessment. For example, after NEFMC’s adoption of the Omnibus Amendment’s herring measures, herring quota was reduced by more than 50%. The Council and NMFS plan to lower the annual catch limit even further over the next three years. By some estimates, these new cuts could reduce herring revenue by up to 87%. Such a loss in profitability on top of the costs associated with industry-funded monitoring would cripple fishermen who rely on the industry. Yet the government has done nothing to address these concerns or dilemma.

The Letter

Now, CoA Institute has discovered a letter from Michael Pentony, the Regional Administrator for NMFS’s Greater Atlantic Regional Office, which suggests that the Commerce Department has already approved the Omnibus Amendment, despite the fact that nothing has been published in the Federal Register, posted to NMFS’s herring bulletin, or communicated to the general public.

This supposed “approval” of the Omnibus Amendment ostensibly occurred on or around December 18, 2018, nearly a week before the close of public comment on NMFS’s implementing regulations. Given the agency’s publication of a notice of availability, and its solicitation of public comments on the substance of the Omnibus Amendment, it should also have published its approval decision for the fishery management plan in the Federal Register.

The fact that NMFS secretly approved the Omnibus Amendment, perhaps to avoid public outcry, only adds to concerns surrounding its decision to propose implementing regulations before publicly approving, in part or in full, the amendment’s various management measures, including industry-funded monitoring. Taken together, these facts strongly suggest the government prejudged the legality of the Omnibus Amendment and intended to force it through no matter the pushback. Indeed, it seems the government never planned to give adequate attention to the concerns raised by stakeholders, including CoA Institute. Those concerns certainly went unaddressed in the newly discovered letter.

The Questions

Administrator Pentony’s letter indicates that NMFS does not have adequate funding to administer the at-sea monitoring and portside sampling programs in the herring fishery for the current fishing year, which already started on January 1, 2019. Instead, NMFS would plan to implement the industry funding requirement in 2020. This estimated date of implementation, however, assumes that the Omnibus Amendment will not face challenge in the courts. CoA Institute has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for background information on the December 18, 2018 letter, and the possible reasoning for why the agency has yet to make any public announcements. We will provide additional details as they become available.

Ryan P. Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute

NOAA Records Demonstrate Expansion of Sensitive Review FOIA Procedures

The Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) ensures all citizens equal and open access to records of the administrative state.  It should come as no surprise, however, that the Executive Branch has never been thrilled about disclosing its records to the general public.  At various times, the White House has orchestrated efforts to frustrate prompt disclosure of records under the FOIA, and President Trump is no exception.  In its first year, the Trump Administration has expanded the so-called sensitive review process.  In doing so, agencies have denied FOIA requesters their statutory right of prompt access to government records.

Sensitive review refers to the practice of giving certain FOIA requests extra scrutiny, usually because the records they seek could solicit media attention once disclosed.  The sensitive review process may involve an agency’s public affairs team or other communications specialists, and often includes political appointees at the agencies involved.  The process delays and sometimes prevents disclosure of records that the public has a right to see.

Recently, Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) learned that at least one agency—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”)—has expanded the sensitive review process by putting FOIA requests from attorneys into a special class.  In some cases, the agency has done this out of fear it would release records that could be used against it in litigation.  These evasive tactics violate the spirit and purpose of the FOIA.  They cannot and should not be tolerated.  Sensitive review of requests based on the identity of a requester can only reflect the Administration’s efforts to limit the disclosure of records, or at least the segment of requester to whom such information is provided, rather than representing any legitimate concern.

Investigating NOAA’s “High Visibility” FOIA Process

For some time now, CoA Institute has been concerned that NOAA may be abusing the sensitive review process to avoid disclosing information it would rather keep hidden.  In one FOIA production from the agency, for example, NOAA used dubious grounds to redact an email and one of its attachments almost in their entirety, as shown below.

One of the two tracking tables attached to this email included a list of incoming requests at NOAA.  NOAA withheld the substantive information concerning those requests—such as the identities of the requesters, the tracking numbers of their requests, and their respective fee category (e.g., representative of the news media)—under attorney-client privilege.  But it is difficult to credit that such benign tracking information would be privileged, particularly when many agencies regularly release FOIA logs containing just this sort of information.

The second tracking table attached to the email reflected NOAA’s contributions to a Department of Commerce-wide effort to track requests pertaining to the Trump Administration’s transition period.  For example, in response to a request from ProPublica, NOAA was unable to locate any records of correspondence with former Trump nominee Todd Ricketts.  Unlike the NOAA-specific tacking table, however, the information about departmental requests was left unredacted in most instances.

Newly Released Records Provide Details about NOAA’s Enhanced Sensitive Review

In an attempt to understand NOAA’s sensitive review practice, on December 11, 2017, we submitted a FOIA request to NOAA seeking access to all records about the agency’s practice of identifying “high visibility” FOIA requests, as well as its tracking of requests concerning the Trump transition.  This week the agency provided an interim production of responsive records, and the records produced are helping us piece together just what the agency considers to be a high visibility request.

As noted, sensitive review refers to the practice of giving certain FOIA requests extra scrutiny, including by bringing political appointees into the review process.  At the Department of Treasury during the Obama Administration, for example, a whole committee of political appointees—along with representatives from the agency’s public affairs, legislative affairs, and general counsel offices—availed themselves of the opportunity to review responsive records and delay disclosures.  In the past, sensitive review has been used to target media requesters and frustrate the release of potentially embarrassing or politically-damaging agency records.  It even prompted an investigation by the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

NOAA’s current sensitive review policy, according to one of the recently-produced records, appears to have been formulated in May 2017.  FOIA staff are expected to “[p]rovide the Office of Public Affairs each Thursday afternoon” with “weekly reports listing incoming FOIA requests of interest.”  Weekly meetings are also anticipated to discuss these requests.  The types of requests that elicit agency “interest” include those from the media and those that seek records in the public interest.  But they also include any request “submitted by an attorney.”  Moreover, NOAA’s Office of Public Affairs has the authority to “identify requests of interest warranting OPA review of response determinations.”  Although NOAA’s policy doesn’t require political appointees to insert themselves into the FOIA process, it does appear to represent a worrisome subordination of career FOIA staff to the agency’s communications shop.  That flies in the face of good government.

In our estimation, one of the more troubling aspects of NOAA’s new policy is the agency’s decision to treat FOIA requests from “lawyers” as deserving special scrutiny.  What is the basis for such treatment?  According to one of NOAA’s weekly FOIA reports, CoA Institute—a non-profit organization that is routinely recognized as a news media requester under the FOIA—was subjected to this heightened sensitive review when we requested processing notes for several earlier requests concerning the Antiquities Act.

In the “Comments” column, NOAA FOIA staff noted some alarming details about what it considered important for the Office of Public Affairs to consider:

Regardless of the motivation behind CoA Institute’s, or anyone’s, request, it is illegitimate for an agency to treat a requester differently simply because the agency fears the requester may enforce his rights in a court of law.  FOIA litigation is unique in that there is a tremendous asymmetry in knowledge between the parties about the processing of a request.  That can make it difficult for a requester to challenge agency affidavits defending the adequacy of a search or the use of an exemption.  Courts already routinely defer to such affidavits.  It now seems NOAA wants to fight against anything that could result in the public learning more about the way a request is processed.  Subjecting requests for processing notes to sensitive review could also suggest that NOAA is strategically laying the groundwork for the future application of the attorney-client or attorney work product privileges, namely, by memorializing the agency’s expectation of future litigation—no matter how distant, unreasonable, or disconnected that “expectation” may be from reality.

NOAA’s fear of a “litigation risk” from CoA Institute even prompted the flagging of other requests from unrelated parties about similar topics.

The fear of possible litigation also underlies the agency’s reticence to produce FOIA logs—basically, a type of processing note—when those records implicate subject-matters that could receive media attention.

NOAA continues to process CoA Institute’s December 11, 2017 request, and we have yet to review all the records that have been disclosed thus far.  Many of these records are in Word or Excel format and contain detailed metrics on the performance of NOAA’s FOIA office, including efforts to eliminate the backlog of pending requests.  As we review the available data and begin to receive correspondence reflecting sensitive review deliberations, we will provide additional updates on our website.

Sensitive Review as a Form of FOIA Politicization

The enhanced sensitive review at NOAA is concerning.  But it also confirms a growing suspicion in the news media and the FOIA requester community that the Trump Administration is intentionally increasing the involvement of agency leadership and political appointees in the processing of FOIA requests.  Last December, the Washington Post reported that officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the Department of the Interior (“Interior”) had started to “keep closer tabs” on incoming requests for records that could be embarrassing or politically damaging to the Administration.  More recently, a senior career official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) claimed to have been “barred from handling” requests submitted by the Democratic National Committee because she was perceived to be a “Democrat,” and therefore opposed to the Administration’s interests in limiting the disclosure of embarrassing of politically-damaging information.

As I have explained, the improper interference by political appointees in the administration of the FOIA is hardly new.  It has been ongoing for years regardless of which party controlled the White House and in a variety of federal agencies, including the Department of Treasury, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the EPA, Interior, the State Department, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”).  (Admittedly, it does seem that DHS has made efforts to limit political appointees’ involvement in FOIA administration.)

To the extent President Trump has sought to avoid transparency and open government—to chip away at the “colossus” of FOIA, as Nate Jones has described—he is following in the unfortunate and inexcusable footsteps of his predecessors.  That action should not go uncontested.  CoA Institute remains committed to holding the White House and every federal agency accountable when they violate the spirit and letter of the FOIA.

Ryan Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute

NOAA FOIA Response Suggests Refusal to Search Council Member Email Accounts for Records on At-Sea Monitoring Amendment

Earlier this month, Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) filed an administrative appeal of a final response by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) to CoA Institute’s Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request concerning NOAA’s efforts to expand industry funded at-sea monitoring—specifically, to the herring and mackerel fisheries—and to lay the foundation for industry funding across all of New England and the Mid-Atlantic.  NOAA’s processing of the request suggests that the agency failed to search email accounts belonging to members of the fishery management councils even though they are subject to public disclosure.  Based on the limited records that were disclosed, NOAA’s search appears improperly limited to its own employees.

The Industry-Funded Monitoring Omnibus Amendment

Over the past five years, the New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils (“NEFMC” and “MAFMC,” respectively) have worked on a controversial omnibus amendment that would require more fisherman to pay for at-sea monitoring.  Industry-funded monitoring has already been imposed on the groundfish fleet, despite a long-fought legal challenge, devastating economic consequences, and historically-depressed fishery performance.  Industry funding in the herring and mackerel fisheries will cost fishermen between $710–$818 per day at sea.  That is more than the average daily revenue of many fishermen and will render fishing unprofitable for countless small-scale family businesses.

CoA Institute submitted a written comment in response to the poorly-designed and ill-timed omnibus amendment.  Although the MAFMC decided to table the project for at least a year, the New England Council elected to forge ahead with the herring fishery.  According to a recent presentation by NOAA staff, the agency is now reviewing a draft proposed rule.  The NEFMC’s official “timeline” indicates the rule will be published this month.  A final rule is expected to follow in June 2018.

The December 7, 2017 FOIA Request and Appeal

In an effort to investigate how the Councils and NOAA responded to our comment, we filed a FOIA request for “[a]ll records concerning” the comment, “including any correspondence between or amongst members of the New England and Mid-Atlantic Councils; officials, employees, or representatives of NOAA; or any other third party.”  When we received a response, we were surprised that the agency only found seven responsive records—five of which were part of a single e-mail chain with most substantive content redacted to protect NOAA’s “deliberative” processes.

The other two records were an email that we sent to then-Regional Administrator John Bullard with a courtesy copy of our comment, and an email from Dr. Christopher Moore, Executive Director of the MAFMC, forwarding our comment to members of the Council.

NOAA failed to disclose any records from the members of the regional councils.  Even the record from Dr. Moore was the version received by John Bullard, as highlighted here:

NOAA’s failure to locate, process, and disclose relevant records from Council members is a serious deficiency in its response.  Council records—including members’ email correspondence—are subject to the FOIA, even if those records are stored in private email accounts.  The regional councils conduct important business that has a serious impact on the livelihoods of Americans involved with the fishing industry.  The process by which fishery rules are designed and implemented can already be less-than-transparent; any attempt to hide records from public scrutiny cannot be allowed to stand.

Follow-Up Public Records Requests to Massachusetts and Maryland

CoA Institute also filed state-level FOIA requests with Massachusetts and Maryland this week in order to access some of the records that NOAA has refused to disclose.  These requests seek the same records sought from the federal government, but only to the extent they were created or received by John Quinn and Michael Luisi, the chairmen of the NEFMC and MAFMC, who used their state government email addresses to conduct council business.

Interestingly, sometime after CoA Institute submitted its comment, Dr. Quinn removed his University of Massachusetts email address from the NEFMC website, perhaps in order to dissuade the interested public from even attempting to file a state public records request.

CoA Institute is committed to fighting for the economic rights and liberties of everyday Americans, including those who face increasingly onerous regulation of their livelihoods.  We also will fight against agencies that flout federal records management laws in an attempt to keep their regulatory efforts secret.

Ryan Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute

Fishing Wars: Drowning in Regulations

Commercial fishing boats in New England are going under at an alarming rate, and hard-working families are being demonized by a multimillion-dollar environmental industry whose only product to sell is fear.

On this episode of CRTV’s Michelle Malkin Investigates, Michelle travels to the Northeast to hear the stories of people in the fishing industry who are drowning in government regulations, including our client, David Goethel, who is fighting a fishing regulation that, by the government’s own estimate, could put 60% of his industry out of business.

Watch the full episode at CRTV.com 

Inside NOAA’s Secret Staff Newsletter

Imagine being a New England fisherman.  You’re subject to complex and burdensome regulation, and the federal government isn’t exactly helping to keep your way of life afloat.  In fact, its officials have worked increasingly to limit your ability to catch fish and to impose onerous costs on your continued livelihood.  Take, for example, the legally dubious requirement that groundfish sector members pay up to $700 per day to have “at-sea monitors” ride their boats and watch them fish—a scheme that could put 60% of small-scale fishermen out of business.  Consider also the efforts underway to expand industry-funded monitoring to all other regional fisheries.

If oppressive regulation weren’t enough, now picture these same officials publishing a secret internal newsletter that describes their dealings with you and your fellow fishermen in less-than-flattering terms.  Sadly, this isn’t a hypothetical situation.  According to records obtained by Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) from whistleblowers and under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) employees in the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office have long circulated a paper that often contains their candid feelings towards the fishermen with whom they are supposed to collaborate.

In one article, dated June 29, 2010, Port Agent Victor Vecchio, who works in the “Stakeholder Engagement Division,” described fishermen at a “groundfish outreach meeting” as spreading “various conspiracy theories,” at least until they “ran out of steam (or vodka . . . or whatever).”

Figure 1: Vic Vecchio, “Groundfish Outreach Meeting–Montauk, NY 6/29/2010,” Fathoms (July 2, 2010)

In response to an October 17, 2017 FOIA request, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a complete copy of its April 1-15, 2017 issue of Fathoms, which was heavily redacted to “protect” confidential commercial information.  The range of topics covered in the paper include news about enforcement actions, in-season events (such as the opening of the recreational fishery), the impact of weather patterns on fishing activity, and even scientific developments.  Much of this appears benign and, indeed, informative.  But, as expected, the issue also discusses the industry’s frustration with planned regulatory actions.  The entire content of that article was conspicuously redacted.

In addition to filling a follow-up request for all issues of Fathoms from December 2015 to the present, CoA Institute has filed an administrative appeal challenging NOAA’s heavy-handed redactions.  Exemption 4, which protects confidential commercial information, does not typically apply to government-generated information.  More importantly, the sort of information contained in Fathoms could hardly be described as “confidential” because it would neither impair NOAA’s ability to obtain information from fishermen in the future nor cause a competitive disadvantage to any part of the fishing industry.

It seems instead that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is hiding behind an exemption designed to protect businesses in order to actually keep secret its criticism of businesses.  CoA Institute’s staff attorneys have spoken to a number of fishermen who are completely unaware of the existence of Fathoms.  Given the derision they likely receive in its pages, they are unlikely to be too pleased by efforts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to block disclosure.

NOAA’s shenanigans don’t end there.  Another record disclosed to CoA Institute suggests that there’s a second internal digest—Dock Buzz—that could similarly provide insight into the government’s relationship with the New England fishing industry.  CoA Institute also continues to investigate NOAA’s likely violation of federal records management laws in failing to preserve employee Google Chat/Google Hangout records.

Ryan P. Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute.