Balsiger keeps control of IPHC process after Ohaus charged

The head of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Alaska, whose advice is alleged to have played a role in the state criminal charges filed against an applicant for a seat on the International Pacific Halibut Commission, won’t talk about his involvement in the matter.

NMFS Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger will, however, retain control of the ongoing regional review process for the nine remaining applicants, with the blessing of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Balsiger sits on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and also occupies the IPHC seat designated for an employee of NMFS. The two IPHC seats up for appointment are specified for an Alaskan and a non-resident.

Thomas Ohaus, majority owner of the Angling Unlimited lodge and charter fishing service in Sitka, was hit on May 25 with five charges of false statements on his sport fishing license applications from 2007 to 2011.

Ohaus was applying for the Alaska resident seat, and was charged by Alaska State Troopers within days of sending a letter to change his IPHC application from the Alaskan set to the nonresident seat, allegedly on the advice of Balsiger.

On June 4, the day Ohaus withdrew his application entirely, NMFS refused to comment on whether Balsiger advised Ohaus to change his application status.

“NMFS declines to respond in light of the pending charges levied by the State of Alaska against Mr. Ohaus,” wrote Julie Speegle, NMFS Alaska Region public affairs officer in Juneau.

On June 14, Speegle responded to follow-up questions sent to NOAA headquarters in Silver Springs, Md., about whether Balsiger’s alleged involvement in the Ohaus case cast an ethical shadow over his ability to continue the selection process.

Connie Barclay, NOAA press officer in Silver Springs, declined to comment.

“The Alaska Region, under the administrator’s direction, will complete the nomination package and send it forward to NOAA. It is anticipated that NOAA will seek the guidance of the administrator relative to nominee qualifications,” Speegle wrote in the June 14 email.

Because the IPHC is an international organization, also including three Canadian commissioners, President Barack Obama officially makes the appointment after consultation with the State Department and Department of Commerce.

NOAA Administrator Samuel Rauch, in Silver Springs, Md., is also involved in the process, but all the information they receive comes from or through Balsiger.

“The Regional Administrator vets the list of nominees for qualifications to represent the U.S. and where appropriate, consults with stakeholders to provide a summary of each candidate’s strong points to the assistant administrator,” wrote Speegle on June 14.

As of June 18 the nominating package had not been sent to Maryland and had no deadline to get there.

Ohaus has also declined to be interviewed to date but claims through a spokesman that he was advised by Balsiger to change his application.

Ohaus asked Balsiger for guidance on what “residency standard” he should use for his application, according to Heath Hilyard, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization. Ohaus founded, and remains president, of SEAGO.

Hilyard said Ohaus sought advice from both of Alaska’s U.S. senators and the Department of Fish and Game, but that Balsiger was apparently the only one to respond.

Balsiger consulted federal attorneys and told Ohaus it would be “more appropriate” to apply as a nonresident and advised that he send a letter requesting that his application be changed, Hilyard said June 2.

Ohaus met the March 19 deadline for all IPHC applications. The state troopers were led to him by the investigation on an identical charge against David J. Gross, a guide employed at his lodge.

Ohaus and business partner Charles McNamee, also facing five charges for the same crime, are scheduled for arraignment in District Court in Sitka on July 11. Charging documents filed with the court say Ohaus is resident of South Dartmouth, Mass., and McNamee lives in Nevis, Minn.

Gross pleaded not guilty after charges were filed against him on March 20, but he is scheduled for a change of plea hearing on July 11. He, Ohaus and McNamee are represented by Sitka attorney James McGowan.

Among the nine remaining candidates for the IPHC seats is John Whiddon, manager of Pacific Seafoods in Kodiak, who was rumored to be withdrawing from consideration during the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting there earlier this month.

Like Ohaus, Whiddon is up for the Alaska resident seat.

“News to me,” Whiddon said, June 15, when asked if the rumors were true. “I’ve had quite a bit of support from Kodiak and other areas.”

Whiddon declined to comment on the Ohaus case, or the involvement of Balsiger in the process. Balsiger’s wife, Heather McCarty, is a lobbyist for Pacific Seafoods.

Another McCarty client, Philip Lestenkof, president of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, was appointed to the IPHC in 2002.

He did not seek another term on the commission.

06/22/2012 - 9:58am