COMMERCE Secretary Ron Brown brings a lot of connections from his previous jobs as a lobbyist and political operative. As a result, he must walk a thin line between just doing his job and getting embroiled in conflicts of interest.
The case of the whiting catch in the Pacific Northwest demonstrates how difficult that distinction can be. This spring, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which regulates fishing in Oregon, Washington, and California, decided to allocate 63 percent of the $100-million-a-year whiting catch to shore-based processors and boaters. Seattle-based factory trawlers, which process the fish at sea, felt cheated.
``Both sides tried to exercise a lot of political influence,'' says Phil Anderson, chairman of the Pacific council. ``A lot of political pressure was applied to Secretary Brown's office.''
The factory trawlers won the day. On April 15, the Commerce Department, which oversees the council, gave them 70 percent of the catch - pretty much the same allocation as in 1992.
Mom-and-pop fishing operators, hurt by the final decision, say the move was fishy. One of the biggest operators of factory trawlers, they note, was Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, which gave $20,750 to the Clinton campaign last year. ``It looks suspicious because the Commerce Department doesn't usually tell local councils what to do,'' says Bob Alverson, director of the Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owners Association.
BUT Assistant Commerce Secretary Douglas Hall, whose predecessor made the decision, says charges of Tyson's influence are only a fish story. Commerce reversed the local decision, he says, to stop the council from radically reallocating the local catch without enough input.
``I felt like we got a bum rap on this,'' Mr. Hall says. ``It's almost impossible to issue any fishing regulations in the United States without some impact on Tyson. They're a major operator. But to say that it's cause and effect is very unfair.''