A lobster wholesaler is suing one of its part owners, alleging he embezzled nearly $1.5 million from the business.

Sea Salt, which operates as a wholesaler and a restaurant on Route 1 in Saco, alleges that the part owner, Matthew Bellerose of Scarborough, set up a sham customer with another man and then sent the phony client thousands of dollars worth of lobsters without billing the customer. The lobsters were then resold, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit, filed in York County Superior Court, alleges that $1,496,427 was embezzled from Sea Salt, but a footnote says the full amount of the loss is still being investigated and “is likely in excess of $2 (million).”

Another Maine lobster wholesaler lost money in an embezzlement scheme similar to the allegations against Bellerose. In January, a former Massachusetts man pleaded guilty to shipping 50,000 pounds of lobster, worth about $360,000, to a customer in China. Jonathan F. Cowles’ employer, Maine Coast Shellfish, was not paid for those lobsters. Cowles also pleaded guilty to federal charges of wire fraud for sending himself $25,000 in commissions to which he wasn’t entitled.

A call to the York County District Attorney’s office inquiring about whether there is a criminal investigation into the Sea Salt case was not returned Wednesday.

According to the Sea Salt suit, Bellerose started working for Sea Salt in 2009 and was offered a 20 percent stake in the business in 2017. At the time of the alleged embezzlement, the suit says, Bellerose was in charge of order fulfillment and shipping for Sea Salt’s wholesale business.

The suit says Bellerose and Vincent J. Mastropasqua of Portland, who also is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, set up a company called “East End Transport” and established a fictitious customer of Sea Salt named “Mastro’s.” Both businesses listed their addresses as a UPS store in Scarborough. Mastropasqua is a part-time UPS employee.

Normally, the suit says, a shipping label and an invoice for shipment of lobster from Sea Salt would be created at the same time, but Bellerose allegedly didn’t create invoices for many of the shipments to Mastro’s. The suit says the alleged embezzlement may have started as early as 2015.

“If no bill of lading or invoice was produced, then nobody would be the wiser if inventory was disappearing – at least in the short term,” the suit says.

Some of the lobsters sent to Mastro’s were paid for by East End Transport, the suit says, but the company’s other owners eventually noted that a significant amount of inventory was unaccounted for and brought in a forensic accountant to examine sales and shipping records. At that point, the lawsuit contends, the alleged embezzlement dropped off and the losses for May and June this year were a little more than $17,000.

Bellerose was fired at the end of June, the suit says, and the owners contend he admitted to embezzlement and offered to pay back the money. The suit says he blamed the expense of having to buy his 20 percent share of the company for the alleged embezzlement.

“Guys, I just want to say I’m really sorry,” Bellerose texted his partners, according to the suit. “Not only have I betrayed your trust but years of friendship as well and that one will haunt me forever. … I’d like to resolve this as best as I possibly can with you guys without my innocent family having to suffer for my bad decisions.”

Bellerose declined comment when contacted by phone Wednesday and hung up when a reporter asked questions about the allegations. His lawyer did not return a call seeking comment.

The suit charges conversion, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, negligent misrepresentation, breach of contract and violation of Maine’s deceptive trade practices laws and seeks damages of at least $1.4 million.

Gene Libby, Mastropasqua’s lawyer, said his client and Bellerose set up East End Transport in 2012 with the idea of getting into the lobster shipping business. But the plans never materialized, Libby said.

Mastropasqua “had no knowledge and no involvement with Mr. Bellerose in the misappropriation of lobster from Matthew Bellerose’s business,” Libby said. “He (Mastropasqua) was not aware of Matthew Bellerose using East End Transport to ship lobsters and sell those lobsters.” The “Mastro’s” client, Libby said, was Mastropasqua’s brother, a chef in New York who bought lobsters from Bellerose. Vincent Mastropasqua didn’t know the Mastro’s name was being used until this summer, Libby said.

Libby filed transcripts of text messages in court in which Bellerose allegedly tells Mastropasqua, “I feel terrible that you got dragged in.” Mastropasqua replies, “You’ve got to tell them at that hearing that I had nothing to do with this,” according to a transcript of the Aug. 9 text messages, and Bellerose replies, “Absolutely.”

A transcript of a text message exchange between Bellerose and his wife, Amanda Bellerose, includes Amanda Bellerose referring to “innocent people involved, myself and Vinny.”

“Vinny is losing his mind, rightfully so. Bad enough I married this mess,” she texted, according to the transcript provided by Libby.

Lawyers for Sea Salt attached bank accounts linked to Bellerose and Mastropasqua in August. Judge John O’Neil Jr., held a hearing on motions by Mastropasqua and Amanda Bellerose to lift the attachments, but has not ruled on those motions.

Sean McEwen, one of the partners in Sea Salt, declined to comment Wednesday, and his lawyer, Laura White, also declined comment.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

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