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Federal charges against Northport fisherman are dismissed

Northport commercial fisherman Thomas Kokell in 2010.

Northport commercial fisherman Thomas Kokell in 2010. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Federal prosecutors on Tuesday moved to formally dismiss wire-fraud and conspiracy charges against a Northport fisherman who last year entered a one-year deferred prosecution agreement with the federal government following a multi-year fisheries fraud investigation.

At the same time, the star witness in the case against that fisherman faces a government-recommended 46 months in prison, according to court records.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers appeared in court Tuesday to finalize the deferred-prosecution agreement of Thomas Kokell which stipulated that the seven-count indictment against the Northport fisherman would be dismissed if he was not charged with additional crimes over the past year, both sides said. Kokell met terms of the agreement.

Kokell in 2016 was charged with illegally harvesting nearly 200,000 pounds of fish valued at nearly $400,000 by filing false reports, among other things. He was the first New York fisherman to fight the charges after arrests and convictions of more than half a dozen others.

“The prosecutor said in open court that the remaining charges against Kokell would be dismissed because Kokell completed the terms of the agreement,” said Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Kokell's Northport lawyer, Peter Smith, said the case against Kokell fell apart because government witnesses “lacked creditability.”

In sometimes blistering cross examination, Smith and co-counsel Richard Levitt showed one government witness, fish dealer Mark Parente, made false statements in court, while admitting to tax evasion, gambling and travel violations of his cooperation agreement, among other things.

Parente is scheduled to be sentenced in October and the government has asked the court to sentence him to 46 months in prison, with no credit for cooperation, because of what one prosecutor described as his “corrosive and untruthful conduct leading up to and during the Kokell trial…," according to court records.

Anthony LaPinta, a lawyer for Parente, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The federal government since 2012 has been conducting a probe into a commercial fishing program known as research set-aside that allowed commercial fishermen to harvest above federal allotments and out of season by bidding on lots of fish sold at an annual auction. Money from the auction was used for fisheries research.

Opponents of the program, which has since been suspended, had long contended it amounted to a “license to steal” because some fishermen did not report their catch against the allotment they purchased. In some cases, opponents say, the cost of the allotment exceeded the market price of fish.

Kokell on Aug. 9, 2018, signed the deferred prosecution agreement in which he admitted concealing the harvest of 150,000 pounds of fluke above allowable quotas. He did so, according to the agreement, by conspiring with Parente to mislabel fluke in packing boxes as lower-value fish such as whiting or squid. “I understood that doing so was against the law,” Kokell said in the signed agreement.

His company, Cindi Seafood Corp., pleaded guilty in the case and paid a $5,000 fine. Kokell, now chiefly a clammer, has long since sold his boat and fishing licenses and no longer trawls for fluke.

“Mr. Kokell completed his part of the bargain and they moved to dismiss the indictment. We joined in the [dismissal] application very happily. Mr Kokell is now able to move on with his life,” Smith said.

Hornbuckle said investigations into "fisheries fraud" are continuing. Newsday has previously reported some 70 subpoenas have been issued in the case, including in Montauk.

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