Senator holds up Commerce nominee over fisheries earmark

In one of the stranger episodes of the fiscal 2004 appropriations season, a $2.5 million fisheries earmark in the pending omnibus spending bill is caught in a nasty political spat that has temporarily derailed the Bush administration nominee for the Commerce Department's top telecommunications slot.

Earlier this year, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who serves on the Commerce-Justice-State Appropriations Subcommittee, secured $2.5 million for "Atlantic billfish research" at the behest of the Oceanic Conservation Organization, a Brownsville, Texas-based nonprofit group. The group wants to partner with Texas universities to study ways to conserve depleted Atlantic billfish, mostly white marlin, favored by recreational anglers.

While the billfish species also includes swordfish and sailfish, bill advocates say marlin have suffered from overfishing in part by foreign commercial vessels.

Anglers affiliated with the Miami-based Billfish Foundation -- a more established group that counts the Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic and New Orleans Big Game Fishing Club among its contributors -- contacted Sens. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and John Breaux, D-La., when they got wind of the Texas group's plan.

The Foundation has ties to the government's Southeast Fisheries Science Center in Miami -- which also has a Pascagoula, Miss., facility -- and wants the research funds to be directed there. Among the group's board members is Gary Chouest, president of the Galliano, La.-based shipbuilder Edison Chouest Offshore, which paid Lott's son Chet $60,000 last year to lobby on its behalf, according to disclosure forms. Foundation President Ellen Peel said the group has had ties to Lott and Breaux for years.

Lott decided to play hardball. When Commerce Department officials said they could not provide assurances that money would not be funneled to Texas recreational interests, rather than purely to research, Lott placed a "hold" just before the recess on the nomination of Michael Gallagher to be assistant Commerce secretary for communications and information.

Lott objected "to let Commerce know this was a serious issue," a spokeswoman said. Although Peel disavowed any knowledge of the contact, Lott's spokeswoman said persons opposed to the Texas group benefiting from the earmark told his staff it was for a "wealthy Texas boat owner" to take clients on fishing trips.

According to the Texas group's Web site, founder James Heldt, an Austin businessman, converted an oil field supply vessel into a 165-foot "interactive research ocean vessel" complete with "comfortable accommodations" in guest rooms, television and stereo, Jacuzzi-style bathtubs and "three delicious meals per day."

Board members include professors at universities such as Texas A&M and officials with the Texas International Fishing Tournament. Next year, the group is planning research trips departing from Galveston, Texas, to locations as far as Portugal's Azores islands and Cape Town, South Africa, according to the site.

Robert Hayes, a partner with the Washington law firm Ball Janik LLP -- to which the Texas group has paid $60,000 to lobby on its behalf, records show -- said his clients are not seeking an earmark for lavish ocean jaunts.

"That's the biggest piece of bullshit I've ever heard," he said, adding the funds would be awarded competitively but that it was "highly possible" Texas universities could be recipients.

A Hutchison spokesman said the funds were meant for Texas A&M and the University of Texas, although the Commerce Department would have discretion.

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