The Czech crew of the M/V Marguerita were in for a major surprise when a federal judge in Portland awarded nearly a quarter million dollars to them for reporting a German shipping company who was covering up illegal dumping of oily water, says a report published on Press Herald.
Why was it important?
The criminal case brought the issue of vessel pollution in the global maritime industry to Maine. The Coast Guard first detained the offending cargo ship in Portland Harbor in July 2017, and its management company has a long history serving the state’s paper industry.
The shipping company ultimately agreed to plead guilty and pay a $3.2 million fine. U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen rejected an earlier version of the plea agreement because it did not give any part of the fine to whistle-blowing crew members. The parties returned with the current deal, which allowed the court to set aside up to $250,000 for people who helped with the conviction. Torresen issued an order Tuesday divvying up that money between three Europeans who used to work on the MV Marguerita.
The bulk – $225,000 – will go to the primary whistle-blower, Jaroslav Hornof.
“It is undisputed that the information and evidence that Mr. Hornof provided formed the basis for the charges in the indictment and that it was key to obtaining the conviction,” Torresen wrote.
Smaller awards of $12,500 each will go to former crew members Damir Kordic and Lukas Zak. The judge wrote that the two Czech men were involved in implementing the illegal scheme, but they later helped with the investigation against their employer.
The Court Proceedings
The federal prosecutors had celebrated the plea agreement and the fine. But they also asked the court either to make no award or limit the award to Hornof. They had argued he did not deserve the maximum award because he did not make his initial report to American authorities. A spokesperson for the Department of Justice declined to comment Tuesday.
Portland lawyer Edward MacColl, who represented the three seamen, said he was pleased by the judge’s decision. He sent the news to his clients via email but had not spoken with them as of early Tuesday afternoon.
“I thought it was a good order,” MacColl said. “I am sure they will be gratified.”
International Treaty to Prevent Pollution at Sea
More than 170 countries have joined an international treaty to prevent pollution at sea, and the United States has regulations that dictate how shipping vessels handle their oily wastewater. Crews are supposed to remove the oil before sending the water into the ocean, and they should record all of those discharges. In American ports, Coast Guard officials inspect the ship to make sure the records are truthful, and a record book with false information could be the basis for criminal charges.
Earlier Cases of Violations
In 2017, the Department of Justice imposed more than $50 million in penalties in vessel pollution cases. Those included a $40 million fine – the largest ever – for Princess Cruise Lines. Other fines were smaller, like the $1.9 million paid by two shipping companies based in Singapore and Egypt for covering up the illegal dumping of oily water and garbage.
That year, Hornof documented and reported the illegal dispatches on the Marguerita. When an inspector in Portland Harbor confirmed the violation, the federal government filed charges against the shipping management company MST Mineralien Schiffarht Spedition und Transport and ship owner Reederei MS Marguerita.
MST ultimately pleaded guilty in November to one count of violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships and one count of obstruction of justice for using falsified logbooks to hide intentional discharges of oily bilge waste. In addition to the fine, the sentence included four years of probation. In 2016, MST had pleaded guilty in a similar case in Minnesota, in which the sentence was $1 million and three years of probation. The company’s attorneys did not respond to an email request for comment Tuesday.
Men Detained at Portland
The three men have not returned to their maritime careers. Despite the awards, MacColl said he remained unsettled by the way the government treated them. The three men were detained in Portland from July until September 2017, unable to return to their homes in Europe because they were material witnesses in the government’s case. They were finally allowed to make video depositions and leave the country, but they returned in May for a trial that was then delayed.
Court filings included a letter Hornof wrote to the judge last year, saying he believed seamen needed legal support during these cases.
“They shouldn’t be treated as criminals, to take their fingerprints, to confiscate passports and to hold them in a foreign country against their will and without any information,” he wrote.
He told the judge that the case ended his career, but he wants to see other seamen treated with more respect.
“I want to be sure that a seaman doing the right thing will not suffer from the consequences of his decision,” Hornof wrote.
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Source: Press Herald