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WesPac still hasn’t paid back $837,000 it misspent and Congressmen want to know why

Honolulu, HAWAII — Members of Congress are demanding answers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on how it plans to hold the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council accountable for nearly $1 million in “misspent” federal funds.

U.S. Reps. Ed Case, Raul Grijalva, Jared Huffman and Gregorio Sablan expressed their “continued, deep concern” over the council’s “pattern of mismanagement” in a letter Wednesday to NOAA Administrator Richard Spinrad.

They gave him one week to answer several questions and provide documentation to explain what course of action the agency was taking to hold Wespac accountable for not paying back $837,355 that the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General identified in its November 2021 audit of the main grant the council administers.

 In its final decision in December following an appeal by Wespac, NOAA gave the council 30 days to either pay back the money or come up with an installment plan. The congressmen said it’s their understanding that the council has taken neither action — months past the deadline. 

“Redirecting new federal funds to repayment or simply forgiving the misspent funds without any accountability for those who oversaw or approved such mishandling of Federal dollars will further erode the public’s trust in our government’s ability to fulfill its duties responsibly,” the congressmen said in their letter.

The council, which advises NOAA on fishing polices for more than 1.5 million square miles of U.S. waters, deferred questions seeking comment to NOAA. The agency could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The congressmen said oversight and accountability by NOAA is critically important in the coming weeks as the agency engages in seven public meetings and takes public comments on the proposed national marine sanctuary in the Pacific Remote Islands area.

The first public meeting was held Wednesday evening in Manoa. White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory joined NOAA for the two-hour discussion. 

In March, President Joe Biden directed the Secretary of Commerce to consider initiating a new sanctuary designation to protect all U.S. waters around the Pacific Remote Islands, which would help reach the his goal of conserving at least 30% of ocean waters under American jurisdiction by 2030.

Wespac has for decades opposed the creation and expansion of marine monuments and sanctuaries, and its use of federal money to lobby against such proposals has long been questioned.

Members of the Pacific Remote Islands Coalition, a group of Indigenous researchers, educators, ocean voyagers and community leaders that asked Biden to expand protections around the distant atolls and reefs, were “unsurprised” Wednesday that Wespac had apparently not repaid the federal money yet. 

“All governments should be accountable. Wespac with its continued history of unethical behavior — there should be an accounting of its finances,” said William Aila, former chair of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The Inspector General’s 2021 report stemmed from a request by Case, Grijalva, Huffman and Sablan following a Civil Beat investigation in 2019 into the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund. The three-part series revealed potential conflicts of interest, political favoritism and a lack of accountability as officials used federal dollars to further commercial fishing interests.

Federal investigators found $1.24 million in questionable expenses by Wespac after the 18-month audit of its fisheries fund. That amounted to one out of every $6 the regional fishery council spent over the past decade. 

NOAA determined $837,355 of that amount should be repaid after considering an appeal from Wespac.

The agency said in December that its review revealed the council’s “pattern of failure to comply” with federal standards and rules governing grant awards, and that it could withhold future funding if the money wasn’t paid back.

Read more in-depth reporting from Hawaii at Civil Beat