A commercial fisherman from Oregon may believe that fish don't comply with imaginary boundary lines, but because designated boundaries are part of the nation's federal regulatory process for fisherman, 46-year-old Freddie Joe Hankins has found himself in hot water with the Feds.
Hankins is accused of lying about where he caught some 6,000 pounds of sablefish in summer 2006 that he later sold for about $32,000 to a Seattle-based buyer. It's a familiar scheme. In August, Arne Fuglvog, a fisheries aide to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, quit his job one day before a plea deal he had struck with prosecutors became public. He allegedly committed similar crimes.
According to a criminal complaint filed in federal court, Hankins was operating Fuglvog's fishing boat, the Kamilar, when he lied about his catch. Federal regulations require fishermen to obtain a permit to take only a portion of the total catch of a species for the year in given areas. Hankins is accused of falsely reporting a catch taken from the Yakutat area as having come from the central Gulf of Alaska.
Investigators claim to be aware of four such incidents between 2006 and 2007. However, Hankins is only charged with the earliest on Sept. 4, 2006, five days before Fuglvog was to start his new job as a congressional aide.
Although no mention of Fuglvog is made in the court record pertaining to Hankins, it does offer some insight into what investigators were up to during a more recent, pivotal time in Fuglvog's career.
In 2009 Fuglvog was an apparent finalist for the top job at the National Marine Fisheries Service, according to the Alaska Journal of Commerce. The commercial fishing lobbying group, United Fisherman of Alaska, endorsed Fuglvog for the spot and sent letters on his behalf during the candidate search.
Fuglvog didn’t get the job. He withdrew his candidacy over the summer in 2009, saying the appointment process had taken too long and he no longer wanted it to be a distraction. In August, when the federal charges against Fuglvog were revealed, questions arose about whether Fuglvog had backed out because he was under formal investigation.
Information released in the Hankins case gives weight to those suspicions.
That same summer, on July 6, 2009, federal agents interviewed Hankins. They were building a case using the Kamilar's on-board computer, state harvest records, routine landing reports, vessel logs and witness interviews. As agents questioned Hankins about irregularities, he reportedly told them that the regulatory program fisherman must comply with hadn't taken into account historic fishing grounds and that "the fish don't give a damn where the line is."
The investigation showed Hankins made more than a quarter million dollars through his illegal takes of nearly 70,000 combined pounds of sablefish and halibut. Why he is only charged with a fraction of those alleged crimes is unclear.
(Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an error in the defandant's name. Freddie Joe Hankins was incorrectly identified as Freddie Lee Hankins.)
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com