A commercial fisherman from East Meadow admitted to falsifying records to overfish, and agreed to pay up to $516,000 in fines, give up his fishing license and sell his boat in a plea deal reached with federal prosecutors in Central Islip on Friday.
According to court papers and prosecutors, Charles Wertz Jr., 53, operator of the Freeport-based commercial trawler the Norseman, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and two counts of falsification of federal records in a scheme to underreport 86,080 pounds of fluke harvested between 2009 and 2011, authorities said.The fish were valued at just under $200,000, authorities said. Wertz had previouisly pleaded not guilty to the charges, but a plea agreement had been in the works, authorities said in court last month.
Wertz's fish-dealing company, C&C Ocean Fisheries, also pleaded guilty to wire fraud and three counts of falsification of records, and will close as part of the agreement, prosecutors said.
Ronald Russo, an attorney for Wertz, declined to comment. Wertz is scheduled to be sentenced in November.
Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said based on federal guidelines, the government agreed not to ask that Wertz face more than 21 months in prison, "and the defendant can argue for a term of prison that includes no time."
Wertz and another unnamed individual intentionally submitted 137 falsified dealer reports from May 2009 through December 2011, and 70 falsified fishing logs "as part of a scheme to defraud the United States of overharvested and underreported fluke," authorities said.
During that period, authorities said, Wertz participated in the federal research set-aside program, which allows fishermen to buy the right to harvest allotments of fish beyond the federal quotas. Money from a set-aside auction is used for fisheries research.
As part of the plea deal, Wertz and C&C Ocean agreed to pay between $480,000 and $516,000 in combined fines and forfeitures, relinquish federal fishing permits and divest interest in the Norseman, a longtime presence on the Nautical Mile in Freeport. Wertz also agreed to a ban from participation in the set-aside program, authorities said.
"When individuals like the defendant willfully defraud the government in order to turn a larger profit for themselves, they are also cheating their fellow fishermen who choose to play by the rules," Robert G. Dreher, an acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, said in a statement. "Today's plea demonstrates that we will hold those who break the rules accountable and make sure that this valuable resource remains available to everyone."