MACHIAS, Maine — Anthony Merchant, 49, of Machias, who pleaded guilty to illegally signing more than $22,000 worth of checks for a co-conspirator at Smith’s Lobster Co. in Jonesport last year, was sentenced Friday in Washington County Superior Court to four years in prison, with all but 12 months suspended.
Merchant admitted to writing $22,507 in illegal checks for a fellow co-worker, Joseph Doherty, whose case is still pending, while both worked for the lobster company.
Merchant’s attorney, Jeffrey Davidson of East Machias, said that Merchant was in desperate financial straits after a 2008 divorce in which his ex-wife was awarded his lobster fishing boat. He was destitute, had no job, and was forced to move in with his aged mother.
“You have a man here that was desperate because he was poor,” Davidson said.
Davidson said Merchant never saw any of the money from the checks but instead was paid with fictitious landing slips — slips that indicated he had been fishing in federal waters.
Davidson explained that Merchant needed proof that he had been fishing to retain his federal commercial fishing license.
Justice E. Allen Hunter told Merchant, however, that at 49 years old, he “simply should have known better.”
Hunter said Merchant’s actions had a significant impact on the victim’s company. “You nearly crippled a local business,” he said.
In addressing the court, William Smith, owner of Smith’s Lobster Co., told Hunter that because of the theft he had been unable to raise enough money to pay his usual year-end bonuses.
“We lost fishermen because they lost faith in us,” he said. “We just can’t trust people anymore.” Smith said he was forced to take out a loan to keep the company solvent.
“I’m sorry,” Merchant said in his defense. “I did not do this for the money. I did it for the landing slips. I intend to make restitution.”
Justice Hunter told Merchant that, particularly in Washington County, trust “is the glue that binds rural communities together.” He said all across Washington County there are farm stands with money boxes left unattended on shelves and business deals sealed with handshakes. “Yours was an inside job that involved a breach of trust,” he said.
Merchant’s full sentence for the charge of theft by unauthorized taking was four years to the Department of Corrections, with all but 12 months suspended; $22,507 in restitution within two years of entering probation; and three years’ probation. Merchant was immediately taken into custody.