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LI lawmakers call for probe of DEC fish seizures

Attorney Daniel G. Rogers, center, conducts a news

Attorney Daniel G. Rogers, center, conducts a news conference in the boatyard of the Lester's, a local fishing family in Amagansett, claiming unlawful seizure of property by the DEC. From left to right, Daniel Lester, Paul Lester, Rogers, State Assemb. Fred Thiele, the Rev. Steven Howarth, and Kelly Lester. (April 2, 2012) Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Three state legislators from Long Island have asked the state inspector general to investigate the Department of Environmental Conservation's practices in seizing fish and other property from fishermen targeted in enforcement actions.

The move follows introduction of a bill by Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) to limit the DEC's practice of warrantless seizures in state waters. Sens. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) have introduced a Senate version of the bill.

All three signed the formal request to acting state Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott to investigate DEC's practices. The lawmakers said they were "deeply concerned with the current methods and practices used" by the DEC in enforcing the state Fish and Wildlife Law.

"We seek strict enforcement of laws relating to our fish and wildlife resources, where fishermen as a class cannot be denied the same protections afforded under the Constitution to citizens," they wrote.

Fishermen and women have complained for years that the DEC confiscates and sells fish seized when it boards boats or other property and files charges relating to fishing regulations, but offers no restitution when defendants are found not guilty or plead guilty to lesser charges.

Riverhead attorney Daniel Rodgers said he has already filed three requests for restitution for fishermen and women, including the Lester family from Amagansett, seeking restitution for seized fish. The Lesters want $202 returned after they were found not guilty of possessing fish beyond the legal limits after a DEC enforcement action last summer.

DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said the agency is "reviewing the Lesters' request to be paid the value of the fish. DEC acted in accordance with all standard policies and procedures in this case."

The inspector general's office didn't return calls seeking comment about the lawmakers' letter.

Retired Amagansett fishermen Stuart Vorphal is seeking an undisclosed amount after overfishing charges filed against him were dismissed in 2003.

DEC spokeswoman did not respond to requests seeking comment.

The letter to requested the inspector general examine whether the DEC's "blanket statutory exception for a warrant" in seizing fish or fishing gear in enforcement actions is per se unconsitutional. It also asked the office to examine whether proceeds from the seized fish were being "properly placed" in the state Conservation fund." The lawmakers asked for a "full accounting" of those funds for the past five years, and sought information on how the money was spent. They also seek "clarification" of restitution procedures for instances when property was "wrongfully seized" by the DEC.

"We are concerned that these enforcement policies may be adversely impacting an important segment of the state's economy," the lawmakers wrote.

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