Push for probe of fisheries practices

Kelly Lester re-stocks her self-serve clam stand on Kelly Lester re-stocks her self-serve clam stand on Abrahams Path in Amagansett. (Aug. 20, 2011) Photo Credit: Doug Kuntz

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Members of the longtime fishing clan on Monday turned up the volume on their call for probes of a state fisheries regulator as a bill to limit warrantless seizures of fishermen gained a Senate supporter.

Meanwhile, the department that conducts the raids said it was reviewing a claim by Kelly and Paul Lester of Amagansett for restitution.

In their dory-cluttered yard, the brother and sister stood with a group including their attorney, pastor, state assemblyman and fellow fishermen to call for a forensic investigation of the state Department of Environmental Conservation's fund containing fishing fines and seized fish proceeds, and of DEC confiscation practices.

Through their lawyer, Daniel Rodgers, they also demanded a "vigorous investigation" into the "length and breadth of these warrantless seizures." Last July, DEC enforcement agents raided the Lester property and confiscated $200 worth of fluke and scup. The Lesters were charged with possession of fish above legal limits and operating an illegal clam stand. The siblings were found innocent in East Hampton Town Justice Court, and Rodgers has filed a demand for restitution with the agency, seeking the return of $200.

Lisa King, a spokeswoman for the DEC, said the agency handles all fines and seizure proceeds lawfully.

"All monies received by DEC are deposited into the specific account required by law," King said. "In cases where seized funds or assets are requested to be returned, we review each case on an individual basis as we are with the Lester case. That review is ongoing."

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Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) said he will introduce legislation to ban most warrantless searches after the Easter break. An aide to state Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) Monday said he would co-sponsor a Senate version, as has Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley).

Thiele said he was also preparing to call for a state inspector general probe of the warrantless seizures.

"The Lesters are not the first family to come to me saying they've had problems with the DEC," Thiele said. "They deserve an answer and our role is to make sure they get one."

Other fishermen questioned the DEC's confiscation of their fish or sale proceeds.

Sidney Smith, a Greenport commercial fishermen, pleaded guilty to violations and paid a $1,100 fine last month, but says he wants restitution for some $8,333 in fish proceeds the DEC confiscated from him, and other costs for a violation involving "not sending an email." The DEC has declined to comment because the case is ongoing.

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Rodgers sent a letter to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Monday charging the warrantless search and seizure of fish from the Lesters' yard last year was "in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution."Many believe that agents of the DEC have been engaging in these flagrant violations of the law against Long Island fishermen for decades or longer."

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