A Leonardtown waterman was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison Tuesday and ordered to pay $240,000 in restitution for poaching nearly $1 million worth of striped bass.
The Department of Justice said that commercial fisherman Thomas Crowder Jr. was part of a black market operation that involved more than a dozen defendants and tons of fish taken from the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River over several years.
But the attorney for Crowder said there was no criminal scheme, just a broken state measuring system and a failure to report inaccuracies that benefited his client.
"There are severe systemic problems with the state's check-in process that have historically existed and need to be fixed," attorney Timothy F. Maloney said in a phone interview.
Harvesting striped bass - known locally as rockfish - is strictly regulated to prevent the industry's collapse and preserve the species, which spawns in the bay's freshwater. Commercial fishermen must report the number and weight of their harvests and stop fishing once they reach certain levels. But prosecutors say defendants, including wholesalers, fishermen and check-in operators conspired to underreport their hauls.
According to a statement of facts attached to Crowder's plea agreement, he underreported his fish by $956,000 - nearly half the $2.1 million scheme's haul, according to the Department of Justice. But Crowder doesn't acknowledge conspiring with others to do it, Maloney said. He simply accepted the incorrect numbers that check-in operators gave him, even though he knew they were wrong in his favor. He submitted monthly reports to the Department of Natural Resources reflecting the lower amounts.
During the sentencing yesterday, Maloney said 131 people showed up at U.S. District Court in Greenbelt to support Crowder, a fisherman for 25 years. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, who secured the funds to build the Greenbelt courthouse and maintains an office there, sent a letter of support highlighting the 40-year-old's volunteer firefighting service.
Crowder is an "important and contributing member" of the St. Mary's County community, Hoyer wrote.
Crowder had faced a maximum of five years in prison, though the government recommended a sentence at the low end of advisory guidelines based on his plea agreement.
Entities and individuals charged in the poaching scheme:
* Golden Eye Seafood, a St. Mary's County wholesaler; charged April 20
* Robert Lumpkins, owner of Golden Eye Seafood; charged April 20
* Charles Quade, waterman; sentenced to five months of incarceration, restitution of $15,000 and a $1,000 fine
* Keith Collins, waterman; pleaded guilty; sentencing scheduled for May 28
* Thomas Hallock, waterman; sentenced to one year, $40,000 restitution and a $4,000 fine
* John Dean, waterman; pleaded guilty; sentencing scheduled for Thursday
* Cannon Seafood, Falls Church, Va., wholesaler; pleaded guilty; agreed to pay $28,000 in restitution and an $80,000 fine
* Robert Moore Sr., owner of Cannon Seafood; pleaded guilty; sentencing scheduled for May 8
* Robert Moore Jr.; pleaded guilty; sentencing scheduled for May 8
* Joseph Peter Nelson, commercial fisherman; charged Oct. 15; no trial date set
* Joseph Peter Nelson Jr., commercial fisherman; charged Oct. 15; no trial date set
* Kenneth Dent, waterman; pleaded guilty; sentencing scheduled for July 2
* Jerry Decatur Sr., waterman; pleaded guilty; sentencing scheduled for July 1
Source: U.S. Department of Justice