AUGUSTA – All he wanted, Tom Santaguida said, was to be treated fairly.
Santaguida, 46, is the former colonel of the Maine Warden Service with a stellar record and a 35-year lobster fisherman with a clean license.
Yet he was caught in October with nine short lobsters.
How the undersize lobsters and three dead lobsters ended up in Santaguida’s tank and the role they played in his departure as colonel of the Maine Warden Service are as much a mystery to Santaguida as they are to some of his acquaintances, several of whom have come to his defense.
Regardless of how it happened, Santaguida takes issue with the fairness of the state’s response.
“There have been other law enforcement officers convicted of short lobsters in this state who did not lose their jobs, and I used examples of them at my appeals hearing,” Santaguida said.
Santaguida noted there also has been at least one case of a high-ranking state official coming under fire for the appearance of impropriety with no action taken against the official. The case involved Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Roland “Danny” Martin, who made a phone call to an assistant district attorney in 2005 regarding his brother Richard’s drunken driving arrest.
According to an earlier Bangor Daily News story, which was confirmed last week by Aroostook County Assistant District Attorney Catherine Francke, Roland Martin had inquired about the status of his brother’s case and about a potential plea bargain in the case, creating an appearance of impropriety.
The governor’s legal counsel reviewed the matter and concluded no laws were broken, a fact confirmed this week by David Farmer, a spokesman for the governor’s office. Richard Martin ultimately pleaded guilty to the OUI.
Not until weeks after Santaguida resigned last Nov. 1 did questions surface that puzzled those who knew him and his fishing habits. “It took a long time to think this out – things didn’t add up and you kept thinking and thinking,” said Dain Allen, 72, owner of Allen’s Seafood in Harpswell, where Santaguida sold his catch for years.
Allen, who has fished for more than 65 years, said it made no sense that Santaguida had dead lobsters considering the time of year, the water temperature, and his tank size, nor did it make sense he had short lobsters.
“I never have found a lobster in Tom’s catch that was even close to short, nor would I ever accept them because I would get into trouble,” Allen said. Santaguida is one of about 20 fishermen who sell their catch to Allen’s Seafood and has been doing so for more than seven years, Allen said. “No one in their right mind would ever risk his livelihood and his job over a few short lobsters – there was nothing to gain.”
Also puzzling to Allen and wharf manager Alfred Rose was the steady presence of Marine Patrol officials at the wharf two weeks before Santaguida was caught, they said. “It was just so odd how it came down with them coming day after day,” Rose said. After Santaguida was caught with the illegal lobsters by Marine Patrol Officer Robert Beal, the officers reverted to the once- or twice-a-week schedule, he recalled.
These circumstances, Allen said, along with the fact Santaguida was told he was getting a warning, raised red flags.
Allen said, “I like Beal but I don’t trust the system. Something is rotten, and it’s higher up than [Beal and the other men] we work with.”
Beal said he was not at the wharf every day for two weeks but did frequent it more than usual at Rose’s suggestion. Rose had mentioned that someone had been bringing in a few short lobsters and asked him to check it out, he said.
“I try to check everyone at least once a year. You know, I obviously deal with complaint-based enforcement so I’ll target certain areas if I have complaints that need to be addressed,” Beal said.
The BDN filed a Freedom of Information request for Beal’s work schedule to determine if there was a pattern in when and how often he visited Allen’s Seafood, but the documents are not detailed enough on some days to indicate exactly what location the officer visited and his time of visit in a particular town.
The logs did show that Beal had not worked Oct. 21 and 22. It also noted that on Oct. 24 Beal checked lobsters at Allen’s Seafood and checked lobster boats on the water.
Rose said he mentioned the short lobsters to Beal about a month before Santaguida was caught. “If I see one or two short lobsters in the summer, it’s pretty rare, and I think I had seen two or three in a week,” Rose recalled. “Tom never would have been a suspect for short lobsters. He was hauling only about once a week and was pretty particular of his catch.”
As they suspected, it wasn’t Santaguida. A few days after Rose told Beal about the short lobsters, Allen said he discovered the culprit, had a “man-to-man talk” with the fisherman, and advised Beal soon after that he had handled the matter.
“Lots of times there’s circumstances I can take care of and do a better job than the warden service can,” Allen said.
Beal said he couldn’t recall when Allen told him he had resolved the matter, but he did learn on his own that it was someone other than Santaguida, he said.
A possible setup?
Santaguida’s boat is moored near the harbor on a dead-end street, so it would be very easy for someone to place short lobsters in his tank, according to Allen. In the fall, the lobsters could have survived for several days in a tank.
A trusting man, Santaguida said he never considered the possibility that someone might have done that until others raised their suspicions based on the circumstances. “When people brought it up, I believed it more of a possibility,” he said. He never looked inside his tank before he sailed, he said. The tank is so large that he has to climb inside the container to unload the lobsters on the bottom.
“The likelihood of somebody planting them [short] lobsters are little to none, but so is the likelihood of having dead lobsters,” Allen said.
For Beal, who said he saw no dead lobsters in Santaguida’s catch, it’s a clear-cut case. “Does it appear odd to you [that] a guy who’s fished for 35 years commercially doesn’t know how to properly measure a lobster? That’s odd to me,” he said, referring to Santaguida’s demonstrating incorrect measurement practices on the day of the incident.
As for the possibility of Santaguida being set up, Beal said, “There’s nothing there.” He would have to be notified or get a call from someone reporting that Santaguida was taking shorts in order for him to be at the wharf and that didn’t happen, he said. “If I am going to try to catch Tom because I have some sort of complaint, I’m certainly not going to pull my truck into the Allen’s parking lot, walk down the dock and sit there with my arms crossed while Tom’s at his mooring.”
Marine Resources Deputy Commissioner David Etnier said to his knowledge no one set Santaguida up, including the marine service, and if anyone thought he had been set up, it should have been brought forward a long time ago.
While it is rare, marine patrol officers have planted illegal lobsters in traps in the water in trap molestation cases, Marine Resources Col. Joe Fessenden acknowledged. If lobsters are needed for these investigations, he said, wardens can go pull up any trap and remove the undersize or illegal ones for use in the investigation.
For a suspected violator, a patrol officer would pull a lobsterman’s trap, inspect the lobsters inside, put in marked lobsters, drop the trap back into the water and then would keep the trap under surveillance until the lobsterman came to shore, where his catch would be checked and measured, according to department officials.
“If there were short lobsters in a trap, regardless of how they got there, if some fisherman brought them into the dock, that’s a violation of law, black-and-white,” Fessenden said.
Santaguida recalled that last summer while Col. Robert Rooks of Vermont’s Department of Fish and Game was on board, Beal boarded his boat and asked if he could go along while he hauled traps so he could get undersize lobsters to use in a case he was working on, according to Santaguida. He told Beal he had set his last trawl, so Beal checked over his traps on deck, measured a few lobsters and left.
Beal recalled he had boarded Santaguida’s vessel that day and had asked for undersize lobsters for an investigation which, he said, he later solved without the need of short lobsters.
Marine Resources Commissioner George Lapointe was surprised that the incident with Santaguida was being raised after six months. “It’s hard to believe that if Tom thought something was hinky back then that we wouldn’t have heard about it,” he said.
Santaguida said he didn’t feel he had any choice but to admit guilt. “You catch someone red-handed night hunting, and they go and get a lawyer and say it wasn’t me and I’m not guilty,” he said. “I know that’s a process, and I don’t begrudge people of using that process, but I’ve been a little critical of people who are clearly [caught] red-handed and a strict liability law like this, I’m caught red-handed – short lobsters were in my catch. How could I have any self-respect or integrity if I was going to fight this on technicalities even though those technicalities might have existed? I would not be able to live with myself even if I moved to Brazil and never saw any of these folks again, because that’s dishonest.”
Roland Martin does not believe anyone set up Santaguida. The story here is about someone who on a day off went lobstering, got caught with short lobsters and was summoned, he said. He said Santaguida pleaded guilty, paid $150 and is no longer with the department, end of story.