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Mistrial declared in case alleging illegal fluke fishing

Thomas Kokell in Point Lookout on July 9,

Thomas Kokell in Point Lookout on July 9, 2010. Credit: Craig Ruttle

A federal judge in Central Islip has declared a mistrial in the case of an East Northport fisherman charged with illegally harvesting $400,000 worth of fluke.

After three days of deliberations, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict in the case of Thomas Kokell, who was charged in a multicount indictment of falsifying federal fishing records, wire and mail fraud. U.S. District Court Judge Joseph F. Bianco declared a mistrial on Monday.

Kokell, who pleaded not guilty, was the first Long Island fisherman to demand a court trial in the ongoing federal fisheries probe, which has netted seven guilty pleas and five prison or home-detention sentences.

A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department’s environmental crimes unit, which brought the case following a half-decade probe of a fisheries auction program known as research set aside, would not say whether the government will retry the case. “The department will decline to comment,” spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said.

In closing arguments, defense lawyers Richard Levitt and Peter Smith assailed the government’s case, which was based on the testimony of cooperating witness, Mark Parente, and a mountain of cryptic, hand-scrawled fishing records.

“I couldn’t even understand these charts,” Levitt said, according to a transcript. “It looks like a brain scan of a psychotic . . . Are you going to believe that chart? If an accountant who is auditing the books of a 99-nine cent store did this, he would be fired in a nanosecond.”

Even the government acknowledged issues with the credibility of its star witness, Parente, a New Jersey man who still operates out of the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. Parente during the trial admitted cheating on his taxes, violating terms of his bail agreement, including by gambling large sums, and even lying to the jury.

Those admissions led prosecutors in closing arguments to acknowledge Parente’s missteps.

“You may hear that because or Mr. Parente’s lies and obstruction . . . you can’t believe a word he says,” prosecutor Brendan Selby said. “And what I would like to say is . . . did Mr. Parente repeatedly lie? Yes. Did he obstruct justice? Yes. Did he even erase notations that were incriminating to himself and the defendant shortly before this trial? Yes, he did.”

But, Selby continued, “viewing the evidence in the totality, and all the evidence, including the records, there is so much that corroborates that one point about what he’s saying: that there was a conspiracy with the defendant.”

A status conference is set for April 8 to determine whether the government will retry the case.

“The government obviously failed to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Smith said after the trial.

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