Officials Probe Whether Liquor From Washington Being Smuggled To Alaska
Federal and state authorities are investigating whether commercial fishermen have been smuggling alcoholic beverages from tax-free shops in Washington to Native American villages in Alaska, where local laws prohibit liquor sales.
The investigation is part of a wider probe of companies in Seattle that supply tax-free booze and cigarettes to cargo ships and fishing vessels, said Lawrence LaDage, special agent in charge of the regional U.S. Customs office in Seattle.
Alaska state troopers seized 167 cases of beer and 48 bottles of hard liquor from a fish-processing barge, the Lucky Buck, after it docked in Bethel, Alaska, in June. There were no arrests or charges, but state trooper Dan Decker said the investigation is continuing.
Joel Bodansky, attorney for Golden Age Fisheries, the Seattle firm that operated the barge, said his client had no intention of selling the liquor, that it was intended for the crew. The barge owner said authorities are unfairly targeting him, that he was operating well within the law.
"The city of Bethel has a presumptive law that says if you own five cases of beer or more that you are bootlegging," said Stan Simonson, majority owner of Golden Age. "Everything I had was locked up in bonded stores."
Alcoholism is a devastating problem in towns like Bethel, where the townspeople voted years ago to ban liquor sales, allowing only personal possession and consumption.
Alcohol abuse has been blamed in Native villages for higher than normal rates of suicide and birth defects. Dozens of Native villages around Bethel ban alcohol sales altogether, said acting city clerk Connie Tucker.
But LaDage said the case extends well beyond a few villages in Alaska. He said that while Alaska troopers are investigating the Lucky Buck case, other agents are involved in a much larger probe of ship chandler (re-supplying) operations in Washington state.
The Customs official said the question is whether fishermen and cargo-ship operators, as well as the chandlers who sell them their supplies, are obtaining tax-free booze and cigarettes and then illegally re-landing the goods in Alaska, British Columbia and Washington.
Under a 1987 Washington law, ship chandlers are allowed to sell beer, wine, liquor and cigarettes to vessels heading out to sea, without taxes, as long as the goods are never returned to the United States. The presumption is that the crew will consume the stuff outside the country's three-mile international limit, said Washington state Liquor Control Board spokesman Carter Mitchell. Similar laws apply in Canada.
Bringing the liquor and cigarettes back for re-sale is a federal felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
In one recent case, LaDage said his agents became suspicious when liquor was being ordered for Sealand cargo vessels, even though the company has a no-drinking policy.
Last month, James Thomas Myers, a Sealand employee who was taking delivery of tax-free liquor at Tacoma's Sealand Marine Services dock, was indicted in U.S. District Court for "re-landing" after customs agents watched him putting liquor and cigarettes into his car. Although the Myers case is not linked to the Bethel incident, it may indicate a wider practice, LaDage said.
"We expect more arrests and more indictments," LaDage said. "We are looking at a multimillion-dollar problem.
"There are chandlers in trouble, I'll say that," he added.
Agents from Customs, the Washington state Liquor Control Board, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Alaska State Police Department are involved in the probe, said Dianna Adams, Washington state Liquor Control Board agent.
"We are still kind of looking at the whole picture," Adams said. "We are looking at it to find out if, in fact, there is a problem and, if there is, how big it is."
Among the dozen ship-chandler companies in Seattle, only a handful service fishing boats, while the others supply cargo ships.
Rick Endresen, manager of the Samuel Meisel Co., said his company supplied the load of beer and spirits to the barge Lucky Buck. He said the barge operator had no intention of selling the liquor in Alaska.
Endresen noted that federal regulations allow fishing-boat operators to carry two liters of tax-free distilled spirits per person per week, and they rarely carry their limit. Bodansky, the lawyer, said the Lucky Buck has accommodations for 60 crew members, which means, if it was fully occupied, it could carry at least 120 bottles liquor, nearly three times the amount found in Bethel.
LaDage said his agents are investigating just how many people were on the barge, and whether the booze was really intended for crew consumption. He said the fact the barge landed at a town that outlaws liquor sales is also a factor.
An assistant district attorney filed a document in an Alaska state court in Bethel last month asking that a summons be issued to Simonson, but so far authorities have not acted. The barge owner said the case is the result of a "gross misconception."
One ship chandler said there are rumors of liquor smuggling by local commercial fishermen, but Endresen said that in his 23 years in the business he has never heard of any until now.
He acknowledged, however, that Customs officials have questioned him.
LaDage said Customs has had cases like this involving fishing boats in the past.
"In California a number of years ago, we literally seized an entire fishing fleet," he said. "It was a major thing. It just got out of hand."
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