Cortez's fishy case makes its way to Supreme Court

myoung@bradenton.comApril 29, 2014 

CORTEZ -- The case of three missing fish, with origins in Cortez, will be heard by the nation's highest court sometime this fall.

That might sound a little odd at first, but the U.S. Department of Justice, which used a law usually reserved for corporate crimes to prosecute former Cortez commercial fisherman John Yates, considers it a matter of principle in enforcing the law.

Others consider it a waste of money and federal resources to pursue Yates, a Holmes Beach resident who has already served 30 days on a 2011 federal conviction for disposing of undersized fish and destroying fish to obstruct a federal investigation.

Yates was released from jail in January 2012 while the case was being appealed. The Supreme Court decided Monday it would hear the case.

The entire investigation is based on the testimony

of a single Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission officer. Yates was acquitted of a third charge of lying to a federal investigator.

The case dates back to 2007 and it took four years for the government to bring charges.

It began when Yates was fishing for grouper in the Gulf of Mexico as captain of the Miss Katie.

The FWC officer boarded the vessel and asked Yates to lay his fish out on the deck for measurement. The officer's testimony is that he recorded 72 undersized grouper. Yates was instructed to retain the fish so they could be confiscated once he was ashore.

Yates motored back to the A.P. Bell Fish Co. in Cortez, where he typically sold his fish and where four days later the same FWC officer counted 69 fish that were too small. The officer suspected that the undersized fish he looked at in port were not the same ones he measured at sea.

That started what has become a national fish story.

A member of the boat's crew was questioned by federal agents and eventually said Yates ordered the undersized fish to be thrown overboard, according to a federal appeals court opinion. A jury convicted Yates of getting rid of the undersized fish, and a judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail. The federal appeals court based in Atlanta upheld the conviction.

Yates disputed that any fish were too small, but the Supreme Court case turns only on the use of the federal law against him.

The federal government prosecuted Yates under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was passed in the wake of the Enron and other corporate scandals. Among its provisions is a ban on companies shredding documents if they are under investigation.

The act created harsh penalties, including up to 20 years in prison, for destroying evidence in a federal investigation.

The U.S. Attorney's Office of the Middle District of Florida won the Yates conviction.

Yates' attorney, John Badalamenti of Tampa, on Monday instructed his client to not speak to the media. However, in an April 24 Politico Magazine article, Yates writes, "DOJ's criminal indictment against me is inappropriate and an insulting expansion of federal criminal law."

Badalamenti did not return calls Monday.

A.P. Bell Fish Co. owner Karen Bell remembers the day Yates returned from grouper fishing.

"John was very argumentative with the investigators," said Bell. "The last thing you want to do is be argumentative with federal investigators."

Bell said she believes Yates' attitude with investigators may be the reason why it was taken to such extremes, citing an incident on her property 10 years ago when an FWC vehicle had its tires slashed.

"They raided this place, and I mean full-blown SWAT teams on the roof and everything," she said. "We didn't do it, but because it happened here, they raided the business."

Bell said everyone supports Yates and hopes he prevails to avoid another fisherman going through the same problem over a few fish. But the case, she added, also speaks to a larger issue.

"Part of the problems in this case is that the captain's actions came back on the owner, too," she said. "If I loan you my car and you go rob a bank, is it my responsibility? But the federal government seems to think that it's OK when it comes to fishing boats."

Bell is having her own issues in a separate case that happened three years ago when a captain of a boat owned by Bell drifted into restricted waters due to a GPS malfunction, according to Bell. She said that mistake may cost her tens of thousands of dollars in fines, but she, too, is fighting the case in federal court.

"I don't understand any of that," said Bell. "I love my country, but I'm appalled that hard-working people have to fight our own government over these small issues. It's a huge waste of money and resources."

In the Politico article, Yates claims he has been "blacklisted" from fishing because no one wants someone under federal investigation on their boats. Bell could not confirm any notion of blacklisting, but did confirm Yates has not been commercial fishing for some time.

-- This report contains material from The Associated Press.

Mark Young, urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.

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