Restaurateur convicted on rockfish count Judge rejects plea bargain from Harrison

March 31, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

EASTON -- Levin F. "Buddy" Harrison III, the prominent Eastern Shore restaurant owner and boat captain, was found guilty yesterday of possessing seven rockfish out of season and ordered to pay $2,000 in fines.

Mr. Harrison, whose family owned the Chesapeake House inn and restaurant on Tilghman Island that have been patronized by film and political stars over the years, also was ordered to take 100 youngsters on an educational excursion on the Chesapeake Bay.

And he was placed on unsupervised probation for a year and told not to violate state fishing regulations again.

District Judge John T. Clark III imposed the sentence after rejecting the terms of a plea agreement that could have spared Mr. Harrison a criminal record.

Citing Mr. Harrison's stature in the tidewater community as a successful businessman and advocate for bay matters, Judge Clark said that giving Mr. Harrison anything but a guilty verdict would be inappropriate.

Mr. Harrison said he will appeal the conviction.

Under the plea agreement, Mr. Harrison would have received the same sentence ultimately imposed by the judge.

But instead of being found guilty of the misdemeanor charge, Mr. Harrison would have been given "probation before judgment."

Under that arrangement, Mr. Harrison's record would have been cleared if he successfully completed his probation.

Mr. Harrison and his lawyers agreed to the deal. So did prosecutor Thomas Kimmel. Even the Maryland Natural Resources Police who seized Mr. Harrison and the seven rockfish at his Tilghman Island restaurant last Nov. 13 -- the day before rockfish season opened -- seemed willing to go along with the arrangement.

Then came Judge Clark.

"I'm very, very sorry this happened, as I'm sure you are," Judge Clark told Mr. Harrison moments before announcing that while he would accept most of the plea agreement conditions, one part troubled him.

"You're a man that's done very well," the judge told Mr. Harrison, alluding to his businesses in Talbot County and a newer restaurant at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Anything less than a guilty verdict, the judge continued, "would send out the wrong message."

Until Judge Clark pronounced him guilty, yesterday's court hearing had begun to resemble a testimonial for Mr. Harrison.

His lawyers, Willard C. Parker III and Ellen Barry Grunden, came to court bearing letters from business and political notables -- including Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- that praised Mr. Harrison's largess to charitable groups and environmental causes.

Saying the judge ought to know "the big picture of Mr. Harrison," Ms. Grunden noted that the 59-year-old defendant had served ** on advisory boards designed to improve Chesapeake Bay conditions.

Judge Clark listened patiently to Mr. Harrison's lawyers and read the letters attesting to their client's character.

"It seems very strange that you'd be involved in this [crime]," Judge Clark said. "How come?"

Mr. Harrison said he decided to accept the blame for possessing the illegal fish because they were seized from a truck on his property, outside the Tilghman Island restaurant. But he also said that he was protecting his son, Levin F. Harrison IV, who the elder Mr. Harrison said was responsible for bringing the illegal fish to shore.

"If I say I'm not guilty, then my son will face charges," he told the judge.

Although judges are not bound to embrace plea agreements, Mr. Harrison later said he was "amazed" that Judge Clark had not accepted his.

Because Mr. Harrison is so well-known in the area, an outside judge and prosecutor were brought to Easton for the trial. Judge Clark normally sits in Queen Anne's County and Mr. Kimmel is an assistant state's attorney in Dorchester County.

State laws designed to protect rockfish from over-harvesting carry a maximum fine of $1,500 per illegal fish caught in Maryland waters. Mr. Harrison thus could have faced a fine of $10,500, but it was reduced to $3,500 with $1,500 suspended under Judge Clark's ruling yesterday.

Even with the reduced fine, Mr. Harrison was ordered to pay almost twice the amount per fish levied against most scofflaw anglers.

Violators of rockfishing rules last year paid fines, on average, of $150 per fish, according to statistics provided by Natural Resources Police.

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