Jensen stripped of position on fisheries panel

Ex-DNR official also lost state contract this month

July 11, 2005|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

A former Department of Natural Resources official who was forced to relinquish his $25,000- a-year contract with the agency this month has now been stripped of his temporary position on a multistate fisheries panel.

W. Pete Jensen, who retired as DNR's deputy associate secretary in April and was brought back on a contract basis days later, had been filling in over the spring for state Sen. Richard F. Colburn as one of three people representing Maryland on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The commission regulates coastal fisheries policy and is pursuing placing limits on the commercial harvesting of menhaden, the oily bait fish that Omega Protein is taking out of the Chesapeake Bay at its operation in Reedville, Va.

Maryland officials have supported a limit on the harvest. Omega, which uses spotter planes and large nets to ensnare millions of menhaden, has long opposed limits.

Jensen was forced to resign from his contract job July 1, when top DNR officials learned that he was consulting for a firm, Cambridge-based Wallace and Associates, that has ties to Omega. DNR officials learned about the conflict after several fisheries managers saw Jensen at a menhaden technical committee meeting in New Hampshire, where he was sitting with Omega executives.

Jensen declined to comment for this article.

Jensen, who had retained his executive office while working as a consultant on DNR's nonnative oyster initiative, left the agency immediately. But state officials remained concerned about his position on ASMFC. Last week, both DNR Secretary C. Ronald Franks and an aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called Colburn to discuss Jensen's role on the commission.

But Colburn, who learned of Jensen's resignation in The Sun, had already told Jensen that he could no longer hold the seat.

"I don't need anyone from the governor's office to tell me to do the right thing," Colburn said. "If there's a possible conflict of interest, you want to avoid it."

Colburn, whose father was a waterman, has been the General Assembly's representative to the commission since 2002. But because of his dual duties as a senator and town manager of Federalsburg in Caroline County, he said, he often has to skip ASMFC meetings.

Colburn first asked seafood dealer and waterman Russell Dize to represent him. But in May, Colburn said, Jensen called and asked whether he could have the proxy seat. Colburn said Jensen had called Dize, who had agreed to give up the seat.

Colburn said he would return his proxy seat to Dize for future meetings if he could not attend. When he informed Jensen of his plans, he said, the former DNR official asked whether he could keep representing Maryland on nonmenhaden issues, while Dize voted on menhaden issues. Colburn declined, noting the cost of sending two people and the appearance of a conflict.

"It would be difficult to be there as my proxy, or anyone's proxy, and not be involved with menhaden at all," Colburn said. "There's a full-court press on this issue. This is the issue. You can't avoid it if you wanted to."

Sherman Baynard, chairman of the fisheries commission for the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland, said he was pleased Jensen would no longer have the proxy seat.

"It would have been a conflict of interest for him to have a vote at ASMFC and be paid by an industry that the vote would manage," said Baynard, whose group was one of several organizations pushing for a limit on the menhaden harvest.

Jensen still holds a seat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, a Delaware-based group that regulates federal fishery policy. Ehrlich appointed him to the position shortly after he left his executive job at DNR - state employees aren't eligible to serve on the council - and U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez confirmed the appointment last month.

The council's executive director, Dan Furlong, said he didn't know about Jensen's work for Omega, but that it was unlikely to affect his appointment. The council isn't directly involved in menhaden management, and it has a number of members who work for various industries, he said.

"There is a way to get people off the council, but they would have to be very egregious in their activity. It's not easy to do," Furlong said.

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