As raw December 1998 swept over the Atlantic off New Bedford, Mass., scallop fisherman Larry Yacubian brought around his boat, Independence, hailed by the Coast Guard. The officers who boarded his fishing vessel didn't tell Yacubian it was a setup to coerce out of him a ruinous fine and to destroy his life so thoroughly he could never get it back.
Captain Yacubian lost his business, his boat, his license to fish -- and literally the farm that had been in the family for generations -- trying to exonerate himself of false accusations that he had been fishing in a prohibited area and free himself from a malicious prosecution for lies that he never told. His persecutor? The Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Two weeks ago, Captain Yacubian filed the lawsuit that may well restore his money and his life after nearly 15 years of gut-wrenching bludgeoning by the NOAA.
The Commerce Department's inspector general reviewed the NOAA's Asset Forfeiture Fund -- where Yacubian's $430,000 fine went -- and found that "these funds were used to purchase 'luxurious' undercover vessels, buy 202 vehicles for a staff of 172 enforcement personnel, and take trips around the world."
A special investigative judge concluded there is "credible evidence that money was NOAA's motivating objective in this case." There's also knowledgeable belief that the NOAA's purpose is to eradicate the fishing industry.
The undercover pleasure boats zoomed around Puget Sound on frivolous "Booze Cruises" to entertain NOAA employees and their families, as I noted in a previous column.
In a decade-long battle, Yacubian was thwarted at every turn. When he was ready to show that the NOAA's equipment was so unreliable it couldn't prove he had been in a forbidden area, his expert witness -- a respected Massachusetts Environmental Police officer -- came under pressure and asked to be excused from testifying. Yacubian lost his case, his permits, his boat and his income.
When Yacubian asked for a discretionary appeal -- inside the agency -- he was refused, and had to make to make a costly appeal to a federal court. He won the appeal, and the federal judge ordered his vessel permit and operator permit restored, and sent the case back to the NOAA for reworking according to his instructions. The NOAA ignored the federal judge, withheld Yacubian's permits and went through the same motions and same decision as before.
Yacubian's attorney's fees mounted to more than $250,000, and he tried to sell his boat and permits, worth nearly a million dollars. The NOAA blocked the sale three times by refusing to release the permits -- without which the boat was unsalable. Without an income and out of resources, in July 2005 Yacubian gave up and settled with the NOAA. The agency got everything, and he got less than half the boat's sale price.
Sen./ Scott Brown, R-Mass., has conscientiously helped Captain Yacubian, particularly in gathering documentary evidence -- but without much success. He fumed, "NOAA's outrageous conduct in this case continues today with [NOAA Administrator] Dr. Jane Lubchenco's refusal to release all relevant information about NOAA's actions against Mr. Yacubian."
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said of Yacubian in a press release, "His case was cited as the quintessential example of mistreatment by NOAA Law Enforcement. The government admitted it did Mr. Yacubian and others harm, now it should provide restitution."
Captain Yacubian told me at the end of a long interview, "I feel that up and down America's coasts, fishermen are being pulled into NOAA's Asset Forfeiture Fund. I was one of the first, and I want to hold that agency accountable to remedy the harm they did to me and my family and to save others from my fate."
It's time a court gave the NOAA the slap-down it deserves.
Examiner Columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.