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Conflicts of interest possible in fishery councils, says OIG

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The financial disclosure process for voting members of the nation's fishery management councils is weak, the Commerce Department office of inspector general says.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oversees the eight regional councils, whose job is to prevent overfishing and facilitate the maximum sustainable yield. The 114 voting council members nationwide include administrators from NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, state officials, and state-nominated Commerce secretary appointees.

NOAA's oversight of financial disclosures, which are meant to show conflicts of interest, is full of holes, auditors say in a report (.pdf) released Jan. 17. For one thing, council members don't have to tell NOAA the amounts of their financial interests.

Members have to name the positions they hold in other organizations and what those organizations do. But the form (.pdf) notes, "The information to be listed does not require a showing of the amount of financial interest."

Without that information, NOAA, the councils, and the public can't tell if financial interests are significant enough to keep council members from voting on issues where there are conflicts of interest, auditors say.

The form also leaves it up to the council members to decide which financial interests qualify as conflicts of interest. If they believe they don't have any, they can just write "none" and sign the form. What constitutes a conflict of interest is open to interpretation.

NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service reviews the forms but doesn't independently verify the information. Council staff members also review them, but their instructions on how to do so are informal, auditors say.

In one case, a fishery council's executive director thought a council member might have misreported some information, but the executive director didn't see any way to find out, according to the report.

"The general perception of executive staffs seems to be that, aside from meeting [a legislative mandate], very little value comes from completion of these forms," auditors say.

Completion itself was elusive too, though. Auditors found 22 instances of missing information among 72 disclosure statements for current voting members.

For more:
- download the report, OIG-13-011-I (.pdf)

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