PORTLAND, Maine — The owner of a southern Maine shellfish company, accused of conspiring with the former manager of the Spruce Head Fishermen’s Cooperative to steal lobsters from the cooperative, agreed to plead guilty in federal court to a series of illegal money transactions related to the unauthorized purchases of lobsters.
John W. Price, 58, of Kittery, owner of J.P. Shellfish in Eliot, pleaded guilty Tuesday to 12 counts of illegal structuring of currency transactions. He faces a maximum of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release.
Price waived his right to have the case presented before a grand jury and instead was charged directly by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in a flurry of actions that took place Tuesday morning in U.S. District Court in Portland.
Price’s shellfish company was the primary buyer of lobsters from the Spruce Head Fishermen’s Cooperative in South Thomaston. The cooperative is one of the largest in the state with 56 lobstermen who are members.
The cooperative filed a separate civil lawsuit against Price, his company and the cooperative’s former manager Robert Thompson, 52, of St. George and his wife Cindy Thompson. It alleged that the former manager sold more than $1 million worth of lobsters caught by cooperative members to Price with the money going directly to Thompson.
In August, Maine Superior Court Justice Andrew Horton agreed to place an attachment of more than $1 million against the property of the defendants in the civil suit, saying the cooperative was more than likely going to win the case.
That civil case, in Maine Business and Consumer Court in Portland, was dismissed in November, but no details were included in the court files. The cooperative’s attorney, Toby Dilworth of Portland, said the case between the parties was settled, but the details are confidential.
Federal law requires that any single transaction or a series of related transactions of $10,000 or more involving the same person in a single business day must be reported to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The law is to prevent the laundering of money for illegal purposes.
The federal charges against Price state that on 12 different occasions from August 2008 through September 2010, he made multiple payments to an unnamed cooperative employee. While each amount was under $10,000, the payment in aggregate on each day totaled more than the federal reporting limit.
An informant told police, according to an affidavit filed by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office in 2012, that he had witnessed envelopes of cash being dropped off to Thompson by truck drivers from J.P. Shellfish. The informant reported there was at least $5,000 in each envelope.
The amount of the transactions for which Price pleaded guilty totaled $160,000.
Price is free on bail. He is scheduled to be sentenced on May 22.
Robert Thompson had been charged by the state in October 2012 for felony theft in relation to the sale of lobsters that were the property of the cooperative. That charge was dropped in May, however, after the state said it did not want to turn over evidence to the defense because it could jeopardize the federal investigation.
No federal criminal charges have been filed against the Thompsons yet.
A telephone message left for Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Murphy on Tuesday afternoon was not immediately returned.