Aquariumgate: Coalition Demands Fish and Game Commissioner's Resignation
by Dan Bacher
April 1, 2010 -- The Central Coast Fisheries Conservation Coalition (CCFCC), a recreational fishing group based out of San Luis Obispo, is demanding that Michael Sutton resign from his position as California Fish and Game Commissioner due to conflicts of interest in his votes regarding Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's fast track Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) initiative.
Schwarzenegger appointed Sutton, of Monterey, to the Commission on May 4, 2007. He was reappointed on March 25, 2009 to a six-year term. Sutton has served as vice president and founding director of the Center for the Future of the Oceans at the Monterey Bay Aquarium since 2004 - creating what the coalition claims is a clear conflict of interest when Sutton votes on the MLPA initiative, a process strongly supported by his employer.
The group contends that after almost a year of denials, "Sutton has finally acknowledged that his position as an employee and vice president of the Monterey Bay Aquarium conflicts with his role as a Commission member."
During the Commission meeting on March 3, 2010, Commissioner Richard Rogers, referring to the issue of scientific collection permits in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), stated, in Sutton's presence: "...Commissioner Sutton has to recuse himself from that discussion because the Monterey Bay Aquarium is actually involved as you know in scientific collections."
Sutton reportedly recused himself from the discussion on such permits in MPAs at the Marine Resources Committee meeting on February 16, 2010, according to CCFCC.
It is obvious that the Aquarium has a financial stake in any decision relating to scientific collection permits in MPAs," said CCFCC Director Harold Davis. As Commissioner Rogers said at the Commission meeting on March 3, 2010, scientific collection is 'big business.'"
"This is certainly true in the case of the Aquarium, which profits from the fees it charges to the public to view the marine creatures and plants that it collects and displays," explained Davis. "Moreover, there clearly is a benefit to being allowed to collect these specimens in MPAs, areas designated by the Commission where fishing and other uses by the public are restricted or forbidden."
Sutton's acknowledgment of a conflict is limited to decisions on scientific collection permits. However, the CCFCC charged, in a letter sent to the Commission on March 19, 2010, that his conflict of interest "extends to the formation and amendment of the MPAs in which the Aquarium will have scientific collection permits."
The coalition pointed out that "it would be inconsistent and irrational for Commissioner Sutton to take the position that he must recuse himself from discussions and votes concerning scientific collection permits in MPAs, but that he can vote to establish the very protected areas in which restraints are placed on the general public's use while extraction for scientific purposes by his employer is allowed."
In May 2009, the CCFCC filed a sworn complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) charging Sutton with violating the Political Reform Act (PRA) of 1974 because of his conflicts of interest on votes on MLPA while serving on the Fish and Game Commission. In a cursory evaluation, the FPPC ruled that it didn't find any financial conflicts of interests regarding Sutton's position.
"After conducting an investigation of your allegations in the sworn complaint, we found insufficient evidence to establish that a violation of the Political Reform Act occurred," wrote Neal P. Bucknell, Commission Counsel.
However, Davis emphasized that conflicts of interest are evaluated not merely under the Political Reform Act, which governs only financial conflicts, but also under the common law rules. "These rules are much broader and relate to any actual or potential conflict and to the mere appearance of a conflict," said Davis.
Former FGC Commission President Cindy Gustafson "apparently recognized this when she resigned last year," noted Davis. Gustafson said that her position as general manager of the Tahoe City Public Utilities District might give rise to a conflict sometime in the future even though according to her resignation letter, "... no past, present or currently foreseen issues have presented any concern whatsoever, [but] there is a hypothetical possibility that a future issue may arise and the law is quite clear that even this possibility creates the incompatibility described in the law."
"We find it amazing that Sutton, who has admitted that he has a conflict of interest, believes he can continue to sit on the Commission and make decisions that benefit his employer," said Davis, given that Gustafson found it necessary to resign from the Commission with 'no past, present or currently foreseen' future conflicts."
Up until his recent acknowledgement that his position as an employee and vice president of the aquarium conflicts with his role as a Commission member, Sutton has persistently denied any conflict.
"Before I went on the Commission I went through a vetting process to determine if there were any issues like that or any conflicts of interest as defined by the state," Sutton said, as quoted by Ed Zieralski in the San Diego Union-Tribune on March 10, 2009. "There weren't any and nothing since then has changed. I have a deep interest in helping the ocean and working with the Commission to continue that process (http://www.signonsandiego.com/weblogs/san-diego-outdoors-blog/2009/mar/10/commissioner-michael-sutton-wont-recuse-himself-ml/).
Melvin de la Motte, CCFCC president, pointed out the absurdity of Sutton's denial of any conflict of interest until recently. "The Monterey Bay Aquarium leadership has publically admitted that they are pushing for no take zones under the MPLA," he stated. "How can Sutton claim to be neutral on votes on something, the MLPA, that his employer is an advocate for?"
De la Motte's contention was backed up by a San Jose Mercurcy News article by Paul Rogers on March 29, 2010 highlighting how the Aquarium, under the leadership of its executive director, Julie Packard, is "switching from education to advocacy." "Through its Center for the Future of the Oceans, the aquarium is urging the public to send an electronic form letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to support broad 'no fishing zones,' or marine protected areas, off Southern California," said Rogers (http://forums.mercurynews.com/topic/new-global-warming-exhibit-shows-steady-shift-from-education-to-advocacy-at-monterey-bay-aquar).
Faced with this egregious conflict of interest, CCFCC has asked the Commission to "confirm that Sutton will not vote on any issues relating to MPAs or, if the Commission refuses to provide this confirmation, for a written explanation of the reasons for its refusal."
The coalition believes the "proper course" would be for Sutton to resign. We call for Sutton's immediate resignation from the Fish and Game Commission because of his now self-admitted conflict of interest, said Davis.
Schwarzenegger's Web of Corruption and Conflicts of Interest
The latest charge by CCCFA joins a myriad of charges of corruption and conflicts of interest that fishermen and North Coast environmentalists have leveled against officials involved in Schwarzenegger's MLPA Initative, a process that is privately funded by the Resource Legacy Fund Foundation.
Fishing and environmental groups have blasted Schwarzenegger for appointing to the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task force officials from the oil, real estate and marina development industries who have a vested interest in the how marine reserves are designated and implemented.
Advocates of democracy and transparency believe that it is no coincidence that Katherine Reheis-Boyd, the president of the Western States Petroleum Association, is chair of the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force for the South Coast and serves on the North Coast panel at a time when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the oil industry want to install more oil rigs off the California coast.
By setting up these no-take marine reserves and kicking fishermen, Indians, seaweed harvesters and other ocean food providers off traditional areas of the ocean, the Schwarzenegger administration is paving the way for offshore oil drilling," said John Lewallen, North Coast environmental leader and sustainable seaweed harvester. "Twenty-three percent of the nations offshore oil reserves are off the coast of California. The Point Arena Basin off Mendocino is on track now to be leased for drilling by the Mineral Management Services.
Bob Fletcher, former president of the Sportfishing Association of California, recently claimed in a Fish and Game Commission meeting there was hard evidence that two members of the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force, Bill Anderson and Greg Schem, agreed "to sign off on everything else" in return for not putting a reserve in an area where both had marinas and business interests (http://www.sbsun.com/sports/ci_14523601). Anderson is president of Westrec Marina Management, while Schem is president and chief executive officer of Harbor Real Estate Group.
Cindy Gustafson, chair of the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force for the North Coast Region, responded to these allegations by saying, "I take personal offense to the allegations that members of the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force lied to the commission about business partnerships. Bill Anderson and Greg Schem have never been business partners and neither of them has ever invested in one anothers projects. Further, their ownership interests in marina properties have been fully disclosed and no conflicts of interest exist."
However, how it is possible for her to say that "no conflicts of interest exist?" MLPA critics hold that the conflicts of interests are self-apparent, since both own businesses - real estate and marina development - that can clearly profit or be hurt by the designation of Marine Protected Areas. Just like Schwarzenegger appointed Reheis-Boyd to the task force to ensure that the oil industry's interests are served, the Governor appointed Anderson and Schem to make sure that real estate and marina development businesses are not harmed by the creation of MPAs.
The web of corruption and conflicts of interests is not limited to the MLPA, but extends to numerous other environmental appointments by Schwarzenegger, the worst Governor for fish and the environment in California history. In his zeal to drive collapsing Central Valley salmon and Delta fish populations over the abyss of extinction, Schwarzenegger recently appointed four backers of the peripheral canal/tunnel to the Delta Stewardship Council that will oversee the implementation of the water package that was rammed through the Legislature by Schwarzenegger and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) last November.
Schwarzenegger on March 19 appointed Francis Randall "Randy" Fiorini, a Turlock agribusiness owner, Philip Isenberg, a veteran political hack and lobbyist for the Irvine Ranch Water District, Henry "Hank" Nordhoff, a bio-tech corporate executive, and Richard Roos-Collins, director of legal services for the Natural Heritage Institute, to the "distinguished" seven-member panel.
Environmentalists and fishermen have also exposed conflicts of interest on the state water boards. On March 21, Matt Weiser of the Sacramento Bee disclosed how the leader of the state's largest water pollution regulator is married to a lobbyist for agencies it regulates, a potential conflict of interest she did not disclose publicly until an ethics complaint was brought against her (http://www.sacbee.com/2010/03/21/2622315/water-pollution-regulator-failed.html).
The state's Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating a 51-page complaint filed by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA), against Katherine Hart Johns, chair of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. CSPA alleges that she failed to disclose, as mandated by the Political Reform Act, that her spouse was a registered lobbyist receiving substantial income from entities regulated under the Porter-Cologne and the federal Clean Water Act.
"The Schwarzenegger administration's approach to protecting water quality can best be described as appointing foxes to guard the chickens," summed up Bill Jennings, CSPA executive director.
There is no doubt that the Marine Life Protection Act, a law passed by the State Legislature and signed by Governor Gray Davis in 1999, has been hijacked by corrupt corporate interests. The text of the legislation states very clearly, "Coastal development, water pollution, and other human activities threaten the health of marine habitat and the biological diversity found in California's ocean waters."
Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger, a master corporate greenwasher, has completely taken coastal development, water pollution and other human activities other than fishing "off the table" in his MLPA process. He prefers instead to kick the strongest defenders of the ocean - recreational and commercial fishermen, Indian Tribal members and seaweed harvesters - off public ocean waters to clear a path for oil rigs, corporate aquaculture, marina development and wave energy project