A few observations from the first sentencing of a waterman who was part of the black market that stole millions of dollars worth of striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River.
It was nice that U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte recognized that his decision on prison time, fine and restitution for Thomas Hallock would be watched by officials, recreational anglers and watermen along the East Coast. He called it a "serious crime" that "deserved time."
What a breath of fresh air when compared with state district court judges - especially those on the lower Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland - who don't seem to mind seeing the same bad actors again and again because the puny penalties are just the cost of doing buinsess.
Hallock, who lives in Virginia but fished out of St. Mary's County, admitted to stealing 68,442 pounds of rockfish - more than 10,000 pounds during spawning season - with a total fair-market retail value of $342,210. He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison, fined $4,000 and ordered to make $40,000 in restitution to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to the benefit of the Chesapeake Bay Striped Bass Restoration Account.
In terms of the severity of his crime, federal prosecutors and the undercover officers who infiltrated the black market considered Hallock to be in the middle of the pack of thieves.
Several other things became clear in federal court.
First, claims by Larry Simns, head of the Maryland Watermen's Association, that the five-year undercover operation made things worse are a bunch of hogwash.
Simns said the sting operation by Maryland, Virginia and federal undercover officers created an artificial market for the illegal rockfish, driving up the price and enticing others to get involved. He also questioned why the investigation lasted so long. "Offenders," he said, "should be brought to justice in one year, not four or five years."
Had he read any of the charging documents, attended any of the court sessions or actually talked to law enforcement professionals who have participated in successful stings, Simns would have learned that:
* The undercover buys in this investigation accounted for no more than 1 percent of the total number of illegal fish caught.
* It is standard procedure in any attempt to infiltrate a conspiracy to conduct multiple buys as a way to establish the number of participants and the scope of the distribution network. As one prosecutor said, "Anyone involved in an illegal activity doesn't just say to a total stranger, 'Let me tell you all the illegal things I'm doing, how long I've been doing these things ... with whom I've done and continue to do them, and how exactly how I've been getting away with it for a while.' "
* The purpose of this sting isn't to scoop up a handful of greedy watermen. This is an attempt to address the bigger problem - the demand created by unscrupulous fish wholesalers, who knowingly shipped illegal fish from coast to coast.
Another thing: This year, Simns told reporters that watermen had warned the Department of Natural Resources about lax regulations and that they favored the agency's new, tougher fish-tagging program.
Not quite. In May, Simns complained at a meeting of the Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission that the tagging system then being proposed would be a hardship to watermen. He followed up his complaint with a letter to DNR dated May 30.
At the same meeting, Simns supported a request from St. Mary's waterman and seafood wholesaler Robert Lumpkins to reinstate his check-in station status despite being under investigation for his role in the black market. Last week, prosecutors filed charging documents known as a criminal information against Lumpkins and his business, Golden Eye Seafood, which usually signals that the defendant plans to plead guilty.
In a final bit of weirdness at that May 2008 meeting (glad I keep my notebooks), waterman Thomas Crowder also complained about new tagging rules, telling commissioners: "Regulations won't stop the behavior. The same people will go around those regulations, too."
He would know. On Tuesday, Crowder will be sentenced in federal court after admitting he stole nearly $1 million worth of striped bass between 2003 and 2007 to feed the black market.