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Feds find abuse of power in prosecuting fishermen

Commercial fisherman Tom Kokell stands by his boat

Commercial fisherman Tom Kokell stands by his boat at a dock in Point Lookout. (July 9, 2010) Credit: CRAIG RUTTLE

In 2002, Warren Kremin lost a third-generation family fish dealership, $1 million in legal fees and fines, and a business partner after being hit with what he says were fabricated charges of failing to file proper fish-purchase reports in 1999.

His private practice lawyer, a former top fisheries lawyer, advised him not to fight the case, Kremin said. "He said, 'You cannot win. You will lose. It's a fix.' "

On Thursday, investigators for the U.S. Commerce Department's Office of Inspector General released the latest in a series of reports finding fisheries lawyers and enforcement officers abused their power in prosecuting fishermen and dealers like Kremin, who lives in Rockland County. Among the most recent charges were cases of excessive fines and prosecutions that all but mandated costly settlements.

"The problems identified by the inspector general are unacceptable, were allowed to persist for too long and will end on my watch," Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said Thursday in announcing a series of measures to end the abuses.

For Kremin, whose business partner committed suicide and who lost his grandfather's business, Joseph H. Carter Co., at Fulton Fish Market, the revelations were only the start of making things right. His case was settled for $150,000 but he wants a new trial and restitution. "I would like to see justice prevail," he said.

Last month, at a meeting arranged by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) at the Shinnecock Commercial Dock in Hampton Bays, Kremin detailed his story to Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Friday, Schumer sent a letter demanding that Kremin's case be reviewed by a special master appointed by Locke to review allegations of past abuse.

"The inspector general's final report is a shocking indictment of the way fisheries enforcement agents were running roughshod in the Northeast region," Schumer said Friday.

The inspector general's findings follow two previous explosive reports by the office showing that fisheries enforcement officers overzealously prosecuted fishermen, abused a fund of fishery fines to buy cars, boats and travel for personal use, and hit fishermen with inordinate fines.

In the new report, one fisherman explained the alleged tactics of an unnamed fisheries attorney pushing a settlement.

"[He] said that if you don't pay $27,000 right now, if you want to go in front of one of my judges, you'll be paying $120,000 to $140,000. I settled for 25,000 bucks. I was scared to death. They wouldn't give me the boat back."

Bonnie Bradie, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, which supports the local industry, said it was about time federal regulators listened to fishermen's complaints."We've been screaming for years the enforcement is unfair and prejudicial," she said.

The National Weather Service Employees Organization, which represents the federal workers, called the report "flawed and politically motivated" and the workers "scapegoats."

"The attorneys did their jobs. They enforced the laws, assessed penalties according to NOAA's guidelines and received awards and recognition for their work," said Dan Sobien, the employees organization president.

But locals attest to the findings. Mark Phillips, a Greenport fisherman, says he was hit with a $100,000 fine 20 years ago for fishing over the Canadian border, a charge he easily refuted with satellite records. Still, it cost him $5,000 for a lawyer to fight the charges, which were dropped.

"The $100,000 fine would have put me out of business," he saidTom Kokell, a Northport fisherman hit with a $120,000 fine and a license suspension for overfishing fluke in 2007, ultimately settled for a $65,000 fine but near insolvency forced him to stop making payments. "If regulators don't listen to congressmen and senators, who are we kidding," Kokell said. "Nothing's going to change. You just get so disgusted."

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