Clam Fishermen fish Hempstead Harbor.

Clam Fishermen fish Hempstead Harbor. Credit: Photo by Steve Pfost (2011)

The state inspector general has launched an investigation of seizure and enforcement practices of the Department of Environmental Conservation in the wake of fishing-industry complaints, according to people recently interviewed in the probe and a lawmaker who called for it.

Two agents from acting Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott's office met with five fishermen in Amagansett on Friday, according to fishermen and their lawyer, Daniel Rodgers of Riverhead, who also attended.

"I flat-out told them that I think what the DEC is doing is illegal," Rodgers, a former Suffolk County prosecutor, said of the DEC's practice of confiscating and selling fish and other assets seized in enforcement actions without a hearing.

DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said the agency "will cooperate with any IG investigation." A spokesman for the inspector general would neither confirm nor deny the probe.

The investigation follows by a week a request from three state legislators from Long Island for a review of various DEC practices and an audit of the DEC's seizure funds. Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) said he received a call from Leahy Scott within two days of sending his letter, saying her office would launch an investigation "expeditiously."

"I'm thrilled at the prompt response," said Thiele, who has sponsored legislation that would limit warrantless searches in DEC enforcement actions. Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) also signed the letter and have sponsored a Senate version of the bill. The letter said lawmakers were concerned the DEC's "blanket statutory authority for warrantless searches may be resulting in unconstitutional and unjust results."

Third-generation fisherman Sidney Smith of Greenport was among those who met with the investigators in Amagansett on Friday. Last year, he said, DEC agents intercepted an $8,333 check from his fish dealer after charging him with felony overfishing, charges that were reduced after a plea bargain.

"I feel happy somebody who understands the law is listening to our complaints," Smith said of investigators. He said when he told agents about his case "one guy's jaw almost dropped and hit the table." The agents met fishermen at the home of Paul and Kelly Lester, who have requested return of $202 after DEC agents seized fish from their home last year as part of an enforcement action. The Lesters were found not guilty, but the proceeds from the sold fish were never returned. DeSantis said the DEC is "reviewing the Lesters' request to be paid the value of the fish," adding, "DEC acted in accordance with all standard policies and procedures in this case."

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