Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Investigation of Fish & Game Commission Member Begins

by Dan Bacher

The California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) disclosed on May 19 that its Enforcement Division has opened a formal investigation into conflict of interest charges against Fish and Game Commissioner George Michael Sutton regarding his votes on the implementation of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) .

"This action is in response to the sworn complaint against Sutton filed by the Central Coast Fisheries Conservation Coalition (CCFCC) and the CCFCC fully supports the FPPC action," according to a statement from Mel de la Motte, the CCFCC President.

CCFCC is charging Sutton with violating the Political Reform Act (PRA) of 1974 because of his conflicts of interest on votes on the MLPA while serving on the Fish and Game Commission.

The investigation is taking place at a time when recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, sustainable seeweed harvesters, grass roots environmentalists and elected officials across the political spectrum are charging the Schwarzenegger administration with conflict of interest, mission creep and lack of transparency in its fast track implementation of the MLPA.

"The CCFCC has more aggressive legal avenues to pursue if Commissioner Sutton does not resign," said de la Motte. "Such measures could result in civil money damages against Sutton, but we are hopeful that he will do the right thing for California."

Specifically, de la Motte said Sutton's action in voting to approve the Draft Master Plan of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) violated the PRA because "it was reasonably foreseeable that the decision would have a material financial effect on his own income and on his employer and source of income, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation (Aquarium). As Vice President and founding director of the Aquarium's Center For the Future of the Oceans, Sutton is paid a salary to influence policy and to support efforts to create a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) in California and offshore waters, including fully protected marine reserves."

Had Sutton voted to amend the existing MPAs for the Central Coast (which are included in the Master Plan), he would have been voting to gut or weaken a system of MPAs in which, his employer exults, the Center for the Future of the Oceans, under his stewardship, played a "key role" in having adopted, noted de la Motte.

"Sutton's conflicts do not derive solely from the mere fact that he is a salaried employee of the Aquarium," stated de la Motte. "He is in fact closely connected to many of the key players involved in the process of implementing the MLPA and these connections create conflicts under the Political Reform Act (See Chart)."

De la Motte said that Sutton also violated the Fish and Game Commission's own conflict code by failing to disclose as required by law his employment with the Aquarium.

"Sutton's participation in any Fish and Game Commission decision relating to MPAs or to the establishment of limitations on fishing is prohibited under the PRA and a cease and desist order must be issued restraining Sutton from participating in such decisions," he added.

Prominent politicians, including Senator Majority Leader Dean Florez (D-Shafter), North Coast Assemblyman Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata), and grass roots environmental activists are challenging the legitimacy of Schwarzenegger’s fast track MLPA Process in light of “mission creep” and conflict of interest charges.

Florez in March that he and other Senators plan to ask some “very tough” questions of Chrisman and Mike Sutton, Fish and Game Commission member, about the MLPA process in an upcoming Senate hearing (no date has been set yet.) These questions include why the MLPA has been expanded from a $250,000 process to a $35 million fiasco that is threatening the economy and fisheries on the North Central Coast.

Other conflicts of interest that fishermen, seaweed harvesters and grassroots environmental activists are urging to be investigated include:

• The role of Catherine Reheis-Boyd, CEO and Chief of Staff for the Western States Petroleum Association, a member of the five-member MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force. John Lewallen, longtime North Coast environmentalist and seaweed harvester, asks, "Is it coincidence that the Point Arena Basin offshore from Point Arena is the area of highest oil industry interest in Northern California, and the only tract here now open to Minerals Management Service offshore oil leasing process?"

• the role of the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, a private organization, in funding the MLPA process.

• The role that Gordon Smith, the former President and CEO of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, plays on the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation Board. Does he have a vested interest in removing from North Central Coast waters the most vocal opponents of PG&E's wave energy schemes - fishermen and seaweed harvesters?

Patrick Higgins, 5th Division commissioner of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District and one of the most respected fishery scientists in California, wrote an op-ed in the Eureka Times-Standard on May 21 slamming Schwarzenegger's MLPA process. "I am both a scientist and a conservationist and favor ocean protection, but the MLPA process is not science-based and, therefore, there is no guarantee that it will achieve its conservation objectives," he stated.

Higgins takes aim at the Blue Ribbon MLPA Task Force, calling it a "corruption of the democratic process."

"This task force was not established by the legislature when they passed the MLPA," said Higgins. "It is comprised of foundation CEOs, offshore oil interests, marina developers and other friends of Governor Schwarzenegger and has been inserted into the process through a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between CDFG and OPC. This is a corruption of the democratic process that North Coast communities will be protesting to legislators, whose intent is being thwarted."

For more information, call Mel de la Motte, President of the CCFCC, 805-544-2424.

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