A German shipping company has pleaded guilty in federal court in Portland to covering up illegal dumping of oily water, and the court-approved deal opens the door for whistle-blowing crew members to receive a cut of the $3.2 million fine.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen rejected a similar plea agreement two months ago because the parties did not agree to a payout for the Czech seaman who documented and first reported the crimes. She approved a revised version Friday that allows for the court to award up to $250,000 to any person who helped with the conviction. The agreement does not designate who should receive that money, but it does allow one more attempt by crew members who have been fighting for financial awards.

“Today’s action demonstrates that the Coast Guard and the Justice Department will not stand by while foreign vessels intentionally pollute our oceans and then try to cover up their criminal acts by lying to the U.S. Coast Guard,” Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark said in a statement. “This company is a repeat offender, which makes plain that it has shown contempt for the rule of law. I applaud the investigators and prosecutors who obtained this result.”

But the attorney for the seaman and two others said the government has put an unfair cap on the potential awards for his clients.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the government insisted on setting up the plea agreement in a way that’s designed to restrict the potential award,” Portland lawyer Edward MacColl said. “In many cases for people who did much less than my clients, the government requested very large awards for everyone who provided information.”

More than 170 countries have joined an international treaty to prevent pollution at sea, and the United States has regulations in place that dictate how shipping vessels handle their oily wastewater. Crews are supposed to remove the oil before sending the water into the ocean, and they are required to record all of those discharges. In American ports, Coast Guard officials inspect the ship to make sure the records are truthful, and a record book with false information could be the basis for criminal charges.

Last year, the Department of Justice imposed more than $50 million in penalties in vessel pollution cases. Those included a $40 million fine – the largest ever – for Princess Cruise Lines. Other fines were smaller, like the $1.9 million paid by two shipping companies based in Singapore and Egypt for covering up the illegal dumping of oily water and garbage.

In July 2017, the Coast Guard boarded a 606-foot cargo ship called the MV Marguerita in Portland Harbor. An inspector found evidence that the crew had been dumping oily water into the ocean, a violation of the international treaty, and falsifying required records of oil discharges. The environmental crimes unit of the U.S. Department of Justice filed charges against the shipping management company MST Mineralien Schiffarht Spedition und Transport and ship owner Reederei MS Marguerita. The company has a long history in Maine’s paper industry and its ships make regular trips to Portland.

MST ultimately pleaded guilty Friday to one count of violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships and one count of obstruction of justice for using falsified logbooks to hide intentional discharges of oily bilge waste. The sentence is the $3.2 million fine and four years of probation. In 2016, MST had pleaded guilty in a similar case in Minnesota, in which the sentence was $1 million and three years of probation. The company’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Court documents show the U.S. government learned about the latest violations from a Marguerita crew member from the Czech Republic named Jaroslav Hornof.

In an affidavit, Hornof said he learned that one of the chief engineers on the Marguerita was using extra pipes to discharge oily water directly into the ocean and falsifying records. When that employee denied doing anything illegal, Hornof began to collect evidence and make secretive videos. He gave his findings to higher-ups in the company, who investigated and eventually alerted authorities to the problem. The chief engineer who allegedly orchestrated the illegal discharges was fired and replaced, and the Coast Guard detained the ship on its next American stop in Portland.

The company was indicted in August 2017. A first plea agreement filed in May did not include any acknowledgment of Hornof’s role in the case. Torresen rejected the agreement in September, saying the government would not have had a case without Hornof. The parties had to go back to negotiations.

“Watching that videotape is like watching a Jason Bourne movie,” Torresen said during the hearing. “You can tell watching that video that he is taking risks.”

Hornof and two others who worked on the Marguerita filed a challenge to the plea agreement earlier this year, claiming they were entitled to financial awards as victims in the case. Torresen ultimately ruled against them, and they lost an appeal as well.

But MacColl, their attorney, filed another motion Friday in light of the newest plea agreement. He asked for portions of the fine to be paid to Hornof, Damir Kordic and Lukas Zak, saying they reported the pollution and cooperated with the investigation. In a phone interview Monday evening, MacColl suggested the fine was capped because his clients had previously objected to being detained in the United States for months during the criminal proceedings against MST. They were eventually able to return to their homes in Europe.

“My guys were willing to cooperate with anybody and everybody with jurisdiction,” he said. “But they’re not in favor of the process the government uses to detain crews in the U.S. for extended periods of time.”

The government’s response is due later this month. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment about the potential awards Monday.

In the meantime, MacColl wrote in his motion that the three men have not returned to their careers at sea.

“It is likely that they will not,” he wrote.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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