- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Robert M. Lumpkins says he wants to put his past illegal deeds behind him and get back out on the water, where he’s spent most of his life fishing and crabbing.
The Piney Point resident was part of a ring of watermen from St. Mary’s County and in Virginia who were swept up by federal authorities in 2007 for falsely reporting rockfish catches.
The federal investigation focused on a scheme during a five-year period to understate the weight of fish caught and overstate the number of fish caught, which caused Maryland officials to issue tags to allow the watermen to catch more fish. Some of those fish were taken from the Potomac River, where commercial fishing is overseen by the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.
Lumpkins appeared in a St. Mary’s Circuit Court last week to appeal the PRFC ruling last year that revoked his crabbing license for life. St. Mary’s Circuit Judge David W. Densford questioned his jurisdiction over the matter, but said he would issue an opinion on the motion’s hearing within 45 days.
James Zafiropulos, Lumpkins’ attorney, said the PRFC ruling was unfair, especially after Lumpkins pleaded guilty in a federal case against him and was punished by paying more than $200,000 in restitution and by his 18 months spent in federal prison.
Joseph Heckwolf of the Maryland attorney general’s office argued that the fisheries commission’s decision was based on the nature of Lumpkins’ crimes, which could have had a devastating impact on the region’s striped bass fishery.
“The decision of this commission is appropriately colored by the broader scheme of what was happening here,” Heckwolf said.
He said the commission offered due process through a hearing, which Lumpkins attended.
Heckwolf said the commission’s regulations allow for a license to be suspended or revoked, even on a first offense.
“There’s a lot of complex, interjurisdictional issues in this case,” Heckwolf said.
The Potomac River is owned by Maryland. However, fisheries in the main stem of the river are regulated by the PRFC, which was created to help quell the disputes between Maryland and Virginia watermen and law enforcement in the 1940s and 1950s.
A.C. Carpenter, executive secretary of the commission, and Heckwolf would not comment on what might happen next after the judge’s ruling.
Zafiropulos said if Densford rules the license revocation was unreasonable, arbitrary or capricious, the fisheries commission would hopefully go back and look at the ruling and give Lumpkins back his license to crab.
Zafiropulos contends the PRFC, which he called “an amoeba-like entity,” overstepped its bounds and denied due process in that case by not clearly outlining the offenses against Lumpkins.
The lawyer said the judgment was too harsh.
He said a judge in a related federal case specifically said he hoped the decisions of the court would not mean the watermen would permanently lose their licenses.
Densford, however, pointed out that the federal judge’s recommendation was only that, and it had no legal weight on the PRFC’s actions.
Zafiropulos also criticized Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police. “I’m not going to be so severe as to say they were complicit, but they were derelict in their duties” by not vigilantly checking the fishing operations by Lumpkins and others, he said.
The issue was compounded when the PRFC said it would not allow Lumpkins’ son, Robert L. Lumpkins, to use a license for three pound nets in the Potomac that he had earlier acquired from his father.
The commission later reversed that decision, and the 24-year-old son has been able to fish.
“It’s about sins of the father, isn’t it?” Densford asked.
Zafiropulos later said, “He’s the only one in the history of the PRFC to be sanctioned” for offenses by a father.
The son said after the hearing that he would have lost his fishing license for three years, but after appealing, the commission changed its ruling.
“I don’t know why they went after me when I had nothing to do with it,” the younger Lumpkins said.
He said his father has had his crab pot license since he was 15 years old, and that he is fighting for it as much for sentimental reasons as anything else.
“We’re the fall guy. We did do wrong” but the punishment was unevenly dealt out, the elder Lumpkins said after the hearing.
He said that while he is still able to operate the Golden Eye Seafood business, he would like to be able to retire with the ability to still go out on the water and crab, as he has for his entire life.