The Lesters Ask Cuomo to Look Into Raid

A call to investigate the D.E.C.’s fisheries enforcement policy
Daniel G. Rogers, center, announced his request that Gov. Andrew Cuomo investigate the D.E.C.’s enforcement policy during a press conference in East Hampton on Monday afternoon. Russell Drumm

    On Monday afternoon in East Hampton, Daniel G. Rogers, an attorney for Paul and Kelly Lester, announced that he had asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo to instruct the state’s inspector general to investigate the actions of the State Department of Environmental Conservation before and after its raid on the Lester property on Abraham’s Path in July.
    Mr. Rogers met with the press at the scene of the raid on Abraham’s Path. He was joined there by Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who shared Mr. Rogers’s concern that fishermen charged with violations of fishery law were not being afforded due process, nor were they being compensated for fish seized, even when charges against them are dismissed, as in the Lesters’ case.
    Mr. Thiele has introduced legislation aimed at preventing conservation officers from conducting warrantless searches, and State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle has agreed to sponsor a companion bill in the Senate, according to Mr. Thiele.
    “The questions being raised need to be answered,” Mr. Thiele said. “I’m going to make sure we get an answer. The Lesters are not the first to come to me about fisheries enforcement.”
    Stuart Vorpahl of East Hampton, as well as Sidney Smith, owner of the fishing vessel Merritt out of Greenport, and Sue and John Berglin, owner-operators of the Mary Elizabeth from Hampton Bays, were on hand to share stories of alleged abuse by D.E.C. enforcement protocols.
    Mr. Rogers told reporters that other fishermen from UpIsland who had offered to join the gathering had backed out following a raid on a fisherman’s house in Freeport a week and a half ago. “I don’t know if it was a coincidence,” Mr. Rogers said.
    A bench trial conducted by East Hampton Town Justice Lisa R. Rana last summer resulted in the dismissal of charges against Paul Lester for possession of untagged fluke and porgies and possession of fluke over the daily catch limit. The charge against Paul Lester’s sister, Kelly Lester, for not having the proper permit to sell shellfish from a roadside stand, was dropped.
    During the trial, Mr. Rogers claimed that D.E.C. officers entered the Lester property without a warrant, seized fish, and sold the fish (including some that Kelly Lester had set aside for dinner) at nearby Stuart’s Seafood Market over the objections of Paul Lester.
    “Not only does the D.E.C. feel justified in taking a fisherman’s property without warning or notice, or due process, but also without any measure of just compensation,” Mr. Rogers wrote in a release handed out on Monday. He added that a forensic investigation into “where the money went” might find that the proceeds from the sale of the seized fish were used to pay the salaries of enforcement officers, an obvious conflict.
    A federal investigation of National Marine Fisheries Service enforcement two years ago found that federal officers had overstepped their authority in seizing fish, had imposed excessive fines, and had misspent the proceeds from its sale.
    Mr. Rogers said the Lesters had requested restitution, $202.25, on several occasions. The requests have gone unanswered. Lisa King, a D.E.C. spokeswoman, said yesterday that money received by the agency was deposited “into the specific account required by law. In cases where seized funds or assets are requested to be returned, we review each case on an individual basis, as we are with the Lester case. That review is ongoing.”
    The Lesters’ attorney said his clients had considered a lawsuit, but “that’s not something we’d like to do right now. It shouldn’t have to come to that. They just want to be paid.”