‘Red Flags’: Congressmen Ask Feds To Investigate Hawaii Tuna Money
Nathan Eagle - This report is from our partners at Honolulu Civil Beat.
Four key members of Congress are requesting a federal investigation into a murky fund that’s connected to commercial tuna fishermen in Hawaii and three U.S. Pacific island territories.
In a letter last week to Inspector General Peggy Gustafson, U.S. Reps. Ed Case of Hawaii, Raul Grijalva of Arizona, Jared Huffman of California and Gregorio Sablan of the Northern Mariana Islands asked for a comprehensive audit of the millions of dollars that have flowed through the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund, stretching back to at least 2012.
They have concerns about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s oversight and how the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council has doled out the money.
“The questions that we have asked the IG to review implicate Wespac overall,” Case said in an interview Tuesday.
The request for an independent federal review follows Civil Beat’s three-part investigative series about the fund. The special report, published in June, revealed potential conflicts of interest, political favoritism and a lack of accountability as officials used federal dollars to further commercial fishing interests.
Some contracts “raise red flags” because they fail to disclose the contractors involved in providing the services, the congressmen said in their letter. They pointed at unidentified researchers and a teacher in Hawaii who received more than $300,000 in grants from the fund but their names were not disclosed and the project descriptions were vague.
The congressmen asked for a review of one sole-source contract in particular. Wespac gave a $354,525 grant to Noah Shirakawa to lease a fishing vessel and provide bottomfish training in the Northern Marianas. He’s the son of a Big Island fisherman, Ray Shirakawa, who has served on the council’s advisory committees and lobbied the state to open up restricted bottomfish areas.
The congressmen were particularly displeased by the “lack of candor” in Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds’ answers to their questions earlier this year about certain contracts, grants and other aspects of the fund.
The questions that we have asked the IG to review implicate Wespac overall.” — Congressman Ed Case
They described her responses as indirect during a congressional oversight hearing in May that was held by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife. Huffman chairs the committee, which is charged with developing and overseeing the implementation of laws managing domestic and international fisheries and other marine resources. Case, Grijalva and Sablan are members. Grijalva is the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee.
The committee followed the hearing up with a long list of written questions for Simonds, but her responses to those fell short of members’ expectations.
She only wrote “request acknowledged,” for instance, when asked to provide copies of all contracts entered into by the fund for the last 10 years and documentation of all amounts paid from the fund during the same time period.
“I don’t think the committee is going to let this go,” Case said.
Simonds did not respond to a message seeking comment for this story.