By Stephen Betts
SPRUCE HEAD ISLAND, Maine — The owner of a seafood dealership in southern Maine who was snared in a federal and state probe that began with an allegation that more than $1 million worth of lobsters were stolen from one of the state’s largest cooperatives is scheduled to be sentenced next week.
The sentencing of John Price, 58, of Kittery, who owns J.P. Shellfish of Eliot, is expected to provide more detail on a criminal investigation that began more than two years ago when Robert Thompson of St. George, the former manager of the Spruce Head Fishermen’s Cooperative, was arrested and accused of stealing more than $1 million worth of lobsters from members and selling them to Price’s business.
Price’s attorney, Daniel Mitchell, said, however, the lobsters purchased by Price were side sales that were managed by Thompson on behalf of cooperative members who did not want to sell through the cooperative.
Price is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 29 in U.S. District Court in Portland for 12 counts of illegal currency structuring and one count of violation of the Lacey Act. Price pleaded guilty in January to those charges.
The U.S. attorney’s office filed its recommended sentence to the court on Oct. 10. The prosecution argued that the offenses fall into a range of 46 to 57 months behind bars for Price.
Mitchell said Friday that he expects Price will receive less time than those guidelines. He said his client is remorseful for his actions, has cooperated with authorities and has made it right with the lobster cooperative.
Price’s seafood business was the primary buyer of lobsters from the Spruce Head Fishermen’s Cooperative, which has about 56 lobstermen as members. Price was snared by investigators as the result of an investigation into the alleged theft of lobsters by the cooperative’s former manager.
Thompson, 54, was arrested Oct. 3, 2012, by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and charged with felony theft. He had been the wharf manager for the cooperative for 20 years. His job included overseeing the buying and selling of lobsters.
According to a police affidavit filed in court two years ago, the board of directors of the cooperative met in January of that year to voice their suspicions about Thompson. One board member told police he had spoken to a lobsterman in Harpswell and that the man’s son was a truck driver for the Price seafood dealership who dropped off large amounts of cash to Thompson.
Another informant told police during their nine-month investigation that he had witnessed envelopes with $5,000 in cash being dropped off regularly to Thompson by Price drivers.
The cooperative alleged in a separate civil lawsuit against Price, his company, Robert Thompson and his wife, Cindy Thompson, that the former manager skimmed more than $1 million worth of lobsters caught by cooperative members and sold them to Price, with the money going directly to Thompson.
That suit has been settled, although the details of the settlement were not released by either side.
Price’s attorney, however, provided a letter from the cooperative in which it states that its disagreement with J.P. Shellfish had been resolved, and it would be willing to do business with Price’s company in the future.
Mitchell said Price never tried to hide the side purchases that were initiated by Thompson for cooperative members. He said Price kept records of those purchases and paid taxes on them.
Price had been buying lobsters from the cooperative for 20 years and made the side purchases in years when the supply of the seafood was low and he wanted to meet the demands of his customers. The attorney said Price also agreed to these side sales as to keep his relationship with the cooperative smooth.
Telephone messages were left Saturday and Sunday for officers of the cooperative but were not immediately returned.
Mitchell said his client’s mistake was that when money was deposited in the bank, it was structured to avoid reaching the $10,000 level that requires the filing of a currency transaction with the U.S. Treasury Department. The violation of the Lacey Act is because Price is considered to have been negligent in buying lobsters from Thompson, whom he should have known did not have a lobster dealer license. The Lacey Act prohibits the sale of wildlife and seafood if it is not done legally.
Police seized $71,500 in cash in October 2012 from Thompson’s homes in St. George and Rockwood and from a safety deposit box Thompson had at a local bank. The federal government agreed to have that money turned over to the cooperative, according to the cooperative’s attorney, George Dilworth of Portland, earlier this year.
The charge against Thompson was dropped by the state in May 2013 after the state said it did not want to turn over evidence to the defense because it could jeopardize a federal investigation. The U.S. attorney’s office has not commented on whether it is investigating Thompson. No charges have been filed in federal court.
But Thompson’s attorney, Walter McKee, said Thursday, “We are working towards a resolution of the case before the end of the year.”
Price’s attorney pointed out that he does not know what the federal government’s case against Thompson is but said that allegations in the civil lawsuit and in the original theft charge were simply that — allegations.