BOSTON (WPRI) — A once-powerful New Bedford fisherman has admitted to defrauding the federal government by lying about the species of fish he was catching and smuggling large amounts of cash overseas to avoid paying taxes.
Carlos Rafael, 65, pleaded guilty in federal court on Thursday to 28 criminal charges in connection to his fishing business, Carlos Seafood Inc. A judge scheduled his sentencing hearing for June 27.
Rafael, known as the “Codfather” in fishing circles, spent at least four years lying to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, about the types of fish he was catching. Rafael admitted Thursday he was telling NOAA that his fishing boats were catching Haddock, a less expensive fish with a high quota, when he was really catching more expensive, strictly-controlled fish like cod and sole, which have lower quotas.
The federal government requires fishermen to make reports to NOAA under penalty of perjury as a condition of their federal commercial fishing permits; the U.S. Attorney’s office said Rafael had 44 permits, making him the owner of one of the largest commercial fishing businesses in the country. NOAA strictly controls the amount of fish that can be caught in order to prevent overfishing and protect water ecosystems.
In 2013, Rafael was interviewed by Eyewitness News at a New Bedford fishing port about the quotas. He complained that they would harm his bottom line. Federal prosecutors say his fraudulent fishing practices were already going on at the time.
“We’re just about wiped out, with no fish to catch,” Rafael said in the interview.
Rafael also pleaded guilty to tax evasion, after he sold his misreported fish to a wholesaler in New York and failed to report the income, instead smuggling the cash to Portugal. In court, Asst. U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said the wholesaler “literally delivered bags of cash to Mr. Rafael” in the amount of $668,000.
A Bristol County Sheriff’s Deputy, Antonio Freitas, is accused of helping Rafael smuggle the cash to Portugal. Federal court records say Freitas was also a task force officer assigned to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and was able to travel freely in Logan Airport without going through security. Prosecutors allege Freitas carried the cash to Portugal without declaring it, and deposited it into a bank account owned by Rafael.
Freitas is facing charges of bulk cash smuggling and structuring the export of monetary instruments.
In all, Rafael pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, 23 counts of false labeling and identification, two counts of falsification of federal records, one count of bulk cash smuggling and one count of tax evasion.
The U.S. Attorney’s office said Rafael misreported 782,812 pounds of fish in all between 2012 and 2016.
Samuel Rauch, Acting Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said Thursday the playing field was now more level for honest fishermen. “Those who cheat the American taxpayers and their fellow fishermen will be found out, investigated, and brought to justice,” Rauch said.
Rafael’s attorney William Kettlewell declined to comment on the case outside of court. During the proceeding, he said Mr. Rafael would be disputing the total value of the fish he misreported during the sentencing phase.
Judge Bill Young said the highest sentence Rafael would receive based on sentencing guidelines is 78 months, or 6.5 years. The prosecution plans to request 3 years and 10 months as part of the plea agreement, but the sentence will ultimately be decided by the judge.