PORTLAND, Maine — The Spruce Head Fishermen’s Cooperative has asked a federal court to order the U.S. government to return $70,000 it seized from a former manager who has been accused of stealing from the organization.
The cooperative filed a lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Portland.
The money was seized in October 2012 by law enforcement officers when they executed a search warrant at the St. George home of former cooperative manager Robert Thompson as well as at a safety deposit box that he had at a local bank, according to the complaint.
The search warrant was part of the criminal investigation into Thompson, J.P. Shellfish of Eliot, and its owner John Price, 58, of Kittery.
Price pleaded guilty in January 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. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 18 in the same courthouse in which Tuesday’s lawsuit was filed.
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 settled a separate civil lawsuit against Price, his company, Robert Thompson, 53, and his wife, Cindy Thompson, in which it alleged that the former manager skimmed more than $1 million worth of lobsters caught by cooperative members and sold them to Price, with the money going directly to Thompson.
Details of the settlement were not released, but last August, Maine Superior Court Justice Andrew Horton agreed to place an attachment of more than $1 million against the property of the defendants, saying the cooperative was more than likely going to win the case.
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 Robert Thompson by truck drivers from J.P. Shellfish. The informant reported there was at least $5,000 in each envelope.
In October 2012, Robert Thompson had been charged by the state with felony theft in relation to the sale of lobsters that were the property of the cooperative. That charge was dropped in May 2013, 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.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Murphy said Wednesday morning that he had no comment since he had not been served the suit yet.
The cooperative’s attorney George Dilworth said Wednesday that the cooperative has asked for the confiscated funds to be returned and the government has said that it is trying to determine who the rightful owner of the money is.
Dilworth said the cooperative’s position is that Thompson would not have access to that amount of money except for what he got from the cooperative lobsters he sold to J.P. Shellfish.
Thompson could not be reached for comment. Thompson’s attorney Walter McKee said that he received a courtesy copy of the complaint but that his client is not a party to the suit.