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LI's Lester family: Probe fishing raid

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

A generations-old fishing family from Amagansett Monday will call for lawmakers to investigate the practices of state fisheries enforcement agents and audit a multimillion-dollar fund of fines and proceeds from seizures -- actions they charge are unconstitutional.

Paul and Kelly Lester of the Lester fishing clan will appear with their attorney, Daniel Rodgers of Riverhead, to file a formal request with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers requesting the probes in the wake of a raid on the Lester home last year, Rodgers said.

The Lesters were charged with illegal possession of fluke and porgies and running an illegal clam stand. They were found not guilty in East Hampton Town Justice Court last October. Last month, Rodgers filed a letter with the state Department of Environmental Conservation seeking return of $200 worth of fish that agents confiscated and sold at a local market. To date, the money hasn't been returned.

Money from seizures goes to a state conservation fund that pays for some DEC enforcement activities. Last month, Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) introduced legislation aimed at stopping warrantless seizures in DEC enforcement actions. Thiele, in an email Saturday, said he would attend Monday's event at the Lester home.

"I support this inquiry," Thiele said of the Lesters' request for the audit and investigation. However, Thiele said he may ask the state inspector general to probe the matter. Calls to the inspector general last week were not returned.

The DEC has said its enforcement actions and seizures were lawful. But following a Newsday story on the subject last month, DEC spokeswoman Lisa King, asked if the DEC was looking into the question of seizures without a hearing or the chance for restitution, said, "This matter is under review."

At issue is whether the seizure of fish in raids during enforcement actions is lawful without a hearing before a judge to allow fishermen to make a claim for property. The DEC maintains that ownership of the fish transfers to the state because of a conflict.

"If a defendant fails to establish a claim of ownership -- because if they did in some cases, they would be admitting to illegal possession and therefore establishing their own guilt -- the proper remedy . . . is for the right of possession of the fish to pass to the state," King has said.

Rodgers, in a statement, said the Lesters "believe the DEC has been deliberately and flagrantly violating the constitutional rights of fishermen on Long Island for decades, routinely seizing property without the benefit of warrant or judicial review."

Long Island Commercial Fishing Association director Bonnie Brady said she did not plan to attend the event but said the group was "looking into the same issue and will try to push for the same concept in perhaps different ways."

Last week, dozens of state and federal enforcement agents raided the homes and boats of two Nassau fishermen, seizing records of fish sales from computers and paper files without arresting or charging either.

The U.S. Department of Justice has declined to comment on the raids, saying they involve an "ongoing" investigation.

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