Fisherman sues federal agency over penalties

Michael P. Tremoglie Aug. 21, 2012, 2:00pm

Fisherman Sues Feds forExcessive Penalties

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - A former Massachusetts fisherman is suing the federal government for $15 million over penalties he says were too high from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Office of Law Enforcement.

The suit was recently filed in United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Capt. Lawrence M. Yacubian, of New Bedford, is not only seeking compensatory damages, but he wants to hold NOAA accountable for its actions in this Federal Tort Claims Act suit.

He claims that he lost everything he owned because of the alleged draconian federal penalties. Yacubian is represented, pro bono, by the law firms of Hunton & Williams LLP and Burns & Levinson LLP.

The lawsuit results from an investigation by retired federal judge Charles Swartwood III, who had been hired by the Commerce Department as a Special Master to review Yacubian's complaints after members of Congress advocated his cause. The Swartwood investigation determined that Yacubian's case was not the only one with problems.

The investigation cited a number of NOAA enforcement cases that were characterized as being "overzealous, abusive or arbitrary conduct by NOAA personnel which unfairly impacted the outcome." The report said there was "a lack of supervision, oversight, and standards in the work of NOAA law enforcement."

Yacubian's case began in 1998 when he was cited by NOAA law enforcement for fishing in a restricted area and allegedly lying about the size of his catch. The Swartwood report explained that there was "credible evidence that money was NOAA's motivating objective" for prosecuting Yacubian.

Fines collected from fishermen are purportedly deposited into NOAA's Asset Forfeiture Fund. An inspector general report, unrelated to the Swartwood report, revealed abuses in the fund. Funds were used to purchase "luxurious" undercover vessels, 202 vehicles for a staff of 172, and trips around the world.

Gary Locke, who was the Commerce Secretary at the time, issued an apology in 2011, after the Swartwood report was released. Locke, who is now ambassador to China, said then that "NOAA's actions overstepped the bounds of propriety and fairness in ways that had a material impact on the outcome of (Yacubian's) case." He ordered $400,000 to be returned to Yacubian, who says that amount isn't enough.

"By forcing NOAA to face the consequences of its actions, I hope to deter the agency from continuing its egregious conduct and to remedy the harm it has done to my family and me," Yacubian said.

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