ROCKLAND, Maine — A judge has approved attaching properties of the former manager of one of the state’s largest lobster cooperatives, a southern Maine seafood company and its owner who had purchased the bulk of the co-op’s catch for the past decade.
The Spruce Head Fishermen’s Cooperative of South Thomaston filed a lawsuit Jan. 7 against its former manager Robert Thompson, his wife Cindy Thompson, J. P. Shellfish of Eliot, and its owner John Price claiming that the group conspired to short change the cooperative’s members from the sale of lobsters. The lawsuit claims the lobstermen in the cooperative have lost an estimated $180,000 from the illegal transactions between the defendants over the past 10 years.
Justice Jeffrey Hjelm ruled, however, in a Jan. 11 order in Knox County Superior Court, that the attachments would be for just over $10,000.
Hjelm said there was insufficient evidence against Cindy Thompson but he found sufficient information to grant attachments of $10,377 against the other three defendants. That is the amount that a criminal investigation found was stolen from the cooperative between April and October 2012 when surveillance cameras were installed at the Spruce Head island facility without Thompson’s knowledge.
“The plaintiff uses the information from this limited period of time to extrapolate similar losses over the course of at least 10 years, thus reaching a damage claim of nearly $180,000. The record does not provide sufficient support for this theory of damages,” Justice Hjelm ruled.
But the judge said the cooperative had demonstrated a strong case.
“The record supports a finding that the plaintiff is more likely than not to obtain judgment against defendants Robert Thompson, John Price, and J.P. Shellfish Inc.,” Hjelm stated in his ruling.
There is evidence that extra crates of lobsters were delivered to J.P. Shellfish than were billed to the company, the judge stated in his order. There also was evidence of cash payments from Price to Thompson, he ruled. The cooperative and J.P. Shellfish had an agreement that there would be no cash transactions, the judge pointed out in his order.
The request for attachment of property and the order were issued without the defendants being notified because Hjelm agreed there was a clear danger that the parties could remove or conceal property if they were aware that it might have an attachment placed on them.
Robert Thompson has been charged with felony theft as a result of the investigation.
No one else has been charged.
In the lawsuit, the cooperative claims there was a conspiracy among all the parties named. The cooperative is asking the court for compensation for its losses, punitive damages and attorney and court costs.
The lawsuit notes that on Oct. 3, the day that Thompson was arrested, searches were done by police at Thompson’s home in St. George, his home in Rockwood, and at J.P. Shellfish’s facility in Eliot. While the search was being done at J.P. Shellfish, Price repeatedly tried to reach Thompson who had already been arrested and his phone confiscated by police.
The day after Thompson’s arrest, a state-certified weights and measures inspector checked the cooperative’s scales and discovered that one of the scales used by Thompson was measuring two pounds less than it should have reported.
The cooperative noted that since about 1.4 million pounds of the approximately 2 million pounds of lobsters landed at the cooperative were sold to J.P. Shellfish, it estimated that the lobstermen were being shortchanged $48,000 annually.
Price denied he knew Thompson was stealing from the co-op, according to the lawsuit, but that he acknowledged making cash payments to Thompson, saying he thought the money was going to the lobstermen of the cooperative.
Price was on vacation and not available for comment on Tuesday.
Thompson’s attorney Walter McKee of Augusta said he has not seen the order and expressed disappointment that he had not received notice.