Stacks of paper slips have cluttered a U.S. courtroom in Central Islip over the past two weeks: a multicolored trail of evidence in the first major criminal trial of a Long Island fisherman charged in a probe of alleged illegal fishing.
The thousands of documents — adding machine receipts, hand-scrawled freight tickets, inventory receiving sheets, delivery tickets, fishing-trip reports — comprise the bulk of the U.S. Justice Department’s complex case against Thomas Kokell.
The East Northport commercial fisherman was charged in 2016 in a multicount indictment of taking 196,000 pounds of over-the-limit fluke seven years ago. The charges include conspiracy, mail fraud and falsification of federal records.
Kokell, who has pleaded not guilty, is the first Long Island fisherman to fight the charges by demanding a trial. His defense could cost more than $150,000 — money he’s raising by clamming each day before court. Kokell sold the boat he’s accused of using to overharvest fluke in 2011 and 2012.
The charges stem from a five-year federal probe of a fisheries auction program that let fishermen harvest beyond their quotas. The investigation has netted seven guilty pleas and prison or home-detention sentences for five other people.
One of the men who pleaded guilty is Mark Parente, a fish dealer from New Jersey who has been cooperating with the government for more than two years to outline his alleged plot with Kokell.
The case against Kokell largely is based on documents and testimony from Parente, a stocky man with a thick Brooklyn accent who continues to operate Lou’s Fish Market at the new Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx.
Parente testified that he and Kokell conspired to disguise the fish Kokell caught — and Parente sold into the market — by falsely labeling it on the inventory sheets as whiting, for which the limits are not as stringent as fluke.
Attempting to make that case has required prosecutors to methodically dissect and decipher stacks of coded and barely legible slips for the jury of eight women and two men.
The slips represent the daily give and take of buying, selling, shipping and tracking fish and their proceeds.
Parente used initials and various inks to track the disguised fluke, the government has charged.
Explaining why he sometimes used different color inks on sales sheets, Parente said in testimony last week: “What’s in blue is actually what I received.”
“What about the red part?” asked prosecutor Christopher Hale.
“The red part is what I made it out to be, what I fudged it up to be,” Parente said. Asked why, Parente said, “Because we were over the limit of fluke.”
“Who is ‘we’?” Hale asked.
“Me and Tommy Kokell.”
Kokell’s attorneys Richard Levitt and Peter Smith have tried to rebuff the claims by sowing doubt about the evidence and assailing the credibility of Parente.
Parente has admitted under sometimes-withering cross examination to lying to investigators, lying to the jury and erasing the contents of documents submitted as evidence.
Parente also acknowledged a gambling habit that he said continued after his plea deal two years ago and bail agreements, despite a condition that he not gamble, including several visits to casinos and even betting on the floor of Fulton Fish Market.
Levitt established during cross examination that Parente paid most of his workers off the books, gave false answers on a dealer’s license application, and traveled outside New York and New Jersey, also in violation of his bail agreement. Parente testified that he knew those violations could jeopardize any leniency he might have received for cooperating with Kokell’s prosecution.
Parente faces 20 years on each of four counts in his plea.