Why retired officer says Marine Police guarding the Chesapeake Bay are being ‘wasteful’

Retired special agent: 'The amount of money they're spending on what I would consider to be toys, unnecessary squandering of public money'
Holmes VMRC Investigation
Posted at 5:13 PM, Jun 20, 2024

RICHMOND, Va. -- Andrew Cortez cares deeply about the Chesapeake Bay.

"The Chesapeake Bay is our natural heritage," Cortez said. "A healthy bay helps everyone."

The retired law enforcement officer was an investigator for 36 years, working to keep the Chesapeake in check with different agencies as a special agent with U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

He now has concerns about the group meant to do just that: the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which oversees Virginia Marine Police.

"One of the things that really struck me is the amount of money they're spending on what I would consider to be toys, unnecessary squandering of public money," Cortez said.

Holmes VMRC Investigation
Andrew Cortez, retired law special agent with U.S. Fish and Wildlife

He's talking about the recent purchase of a 2024 Pathfinder, a boat commonly used for fishing, costing $183,529.16.

Documents he received through a Freedom of Information Act Request, which he shared with CBS 6, show the purchase was made on March 5. The paperwork said it would be needed by April 4, 2024.

"They've got these rocket launchers; they're sort of a holder for rods. For fishing rods," Cortez said. "And it's got the full fisherman package on it. It's not something that would be used for law enforcement or for fisheries research."

VRMC told CBS 6 that the vessel was purchased through the competitive bidding process in compliance with all state laws and policies.

"This vessel will be deployed in the Middle Area Law Enforcement Region for the Virginia Marine Police as a daily patrol vessel to enforce Virginia fishing and safe boating laws, as well as search and rescue operations. It has not been deployed in the field for law enforcement use yet because we are in the process of up-fitting it with law enforcement specific equipment (i.e. blue lights, siren, overt police markings)," Zachary Widgeon, VMRC's Director of Communications sent CBS 6 in an email statement.

Holmes VMRC Investigation
Andrew Cortez and CBS 6 reporter Elizabeth Holmes

Widgeon said the fishing rod holders will be removed, along with recreational fishing features that do not have a function for law enforcement patrol.

"Any attached fishing rod holders or live wells are standard on these models when they are delivered to the dealership before sale and there is no avenue for buyers to purchase these hulls without this equipment pre-installed. Fiberglass hull vessels are not custom built for each buyer and are adapted and upfitted from a pre-formed model to adapt them to law enforcement-specific needs and uses," Widgeon continued in the email.

The response goes on to say: "This 2024 Pathfinder met the Statement of Need at a price that was reasonable in line with industry standards, superfluous features that do not affect its usage as a law enforcement patrol vessel are not relevant or considered in the purchasing process."

"This is wasteful for an agency with a budget about the size of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts," Cortez said.

That's not the only thing Cortez is concerned about.

There's also been a drop in VMRC-related arrests and subsequent convictions.

Between 2017 and 2018, there were 1,202 arrests and 988 convictions, according to Virginia Marine Police Arrests/Convictions data.

Between 2021 and 2022, there were 667 arrests and 533 convictions.

Based on the numbers, Cortez thinks that's far too few.

"Their conviction rate is 73 percent, which is dismal," Cortez said. "In wildlife law enforcement, marine law enforcement, it should be in the high 90s, because you're catching people in the act."

Holmes VMRC Investigation

Widgeon said in an email that conviction and arrest numbers have fluctuated in the time frame comparing 2017-2018 and 2021-2022.

"The disparity in total numbers between the 2017-2018 and 2021-2022 period comes from three categories: saltwater reactional license violations, Fisherman Identification Program (FIP) violations, and miscellaneous law enforcement (i.e. non-conservation violations, traffic, etc.)," the email reads.

Widgeon said the shift away from focusing on non-conservation violations, traffic offenses, recreational license violations, and FIP violations is based on an intentional shift in the way that the Virginia Marine Police leadership focused the patrol and enforcement efforts of officers.

"The Virginia Marine Police are the only law enforcement agency whose main charge is protecting Virginian's marine resources and tidal waters, and so we should focus our efforts on that charge," Widgeon said.

Widgeon said VMRC is giving officers more discretion in how they enforce the law.

"I have friends still in the agency," Cortez said. "They tell me that about six officers write half the tickets. That's kind of lopsided."

Cortez isn't the only one challenging the VMRC's practices.

In April, the Virginia Police Benevolent Association sent a letter to the attorney general's office, claiming Marine Police Officers were illegally recorded while in the workplace.

It also claimed several "police package" Dodge Durangos that were said to be used for "agency police usage" were going to non-sworn officers, costing thousands of dollars.

Holmes VMRC Investigation
Virginia Police Benevolent Association Spokesperson Rich Goszka

Rich Goszka, a spokesperson for the association, shared paperwork with CBS 6 showing the purchase of Dodge Durangos going to Specialist/Agency Transporation Officer Jeremy Toth and Assistant Commissioner John Cosgrove.

Goszka worked with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries for years.

"They're supposed to provide law enforcement services by the Marine Police, rather than being used for civilian use, which takes away from services from the taxpayers," Goszka said. "We're going to expose whatever corruption is out there. Because that's just the right thing to do."

"This external complaint is currently being investigated by the Office of the State Inspector General. We cannot comment on this as it involves an administrative investigation, but we would like to state that the purchasing of vehicles at VMRC is done in complete compliance with the Department of General Services guidelines and that we are always receptive and cooperative with any outside inquiries into how VMRC operates in our administrative functions. VMRC operates in complete transparency as a state agency. We would direct you to the Office of the State Inspector General if you would like further information regarding this external complaint," Widgeon said in an email.

The Attorney General's Office told CBS 6 it is not commenting on the letter at this time.

Holmes VMRC Investigation
Chesapeake Bay

Cortez expressed concerns to CBS 6 about a decreased number of hours spent inspecting and enforceming menhaden fishing regulations.

Menhaden is considered a vital resource to the Chesapeake Bay's ecosystem.

According to VMRC, the following hours spent on menhaden enforcement and inspections conducted are as follows:

  • 2015: 44.5 hours, 194 inspections
  • 2016: 60.5 hours, 53 inspections
  • 2017: 33.5 hours, 165 inspections
  • 2018: 49.5 hours, 174 inspections
  • 2019: 45.5 hours, 307 inspections
  • 2020: 82.0 hours, 221 inspections
  • 2021: 106 hours, 356 inspections
  • 2022: 52.5 hours, 575 inspections
  • 2023: 30.0 hours, 151 inspections

"It is worth noting that since 2015, with over 2,000 inspections having been conducted on the menhaden fishery in Virginia, no state fisheries violations have been found," Widgeon wrote.
Last year, Chesapeake Legal Alliance (CLA), on behalf of the Southern Maryland Recreational Fishing Organization, filed a suit challenging the VMRC, saying the group allowed overfishing of menhaden.

Last November, a motion made in Richmond City Circuit Court required VMRC to comply with Virginia fisheries law "to rely on the best available science to set responsible menhaden harvests and avoid acting solely to protect the economic interests of a single commercial entity," according to CLA.

According to a study on osprey and its ties to menhaden, by Dr. Bryan D. Watts, Director of the Center for Conservation Biology at William and Mary, "menhaden harvest policy has become a political mind field with special interests on all sides."

A study by Phil Zalesak, the President of South Maryland Recreational Fishing Organization, says "the latest scientific data indicates that there are insufficient Atlantic menhaden in Virginia waters during the Atlantic menhaden reduction fishing season to sustain life for fish and birds dependent on Atlantic menhaden for their survival."

"Although the statement that 'Atlantic menhaden are no overfished and overfishing is not occurring' may apply to the Atlantic Coast,' it does not apply to the Chesapeake Bay," Zalesak wrote.

Widgeon told CBS 6's Zalesak's study is not a peer-reviewed study.

"The most recent Atlantic menhaden stock ecological assessment and update showed that the stock was not overfished and not undergoing overfishing," Widgeon wrote, citing data from 2020 and 2022. "THE ASMFC has discussed a Chesapeake-Bay specific stock assessment to recommend a scientifically supported Chesapeake Bay Cap but has prioritized further refining the ecological reference points model in the next benchmark stock assessment, as this represents the best available science for the coastwide Atlantic menhaden stock. With the lack of Chesapeake Bay-specific assessment and no concreate evidence that localized depletion is occurring in the Bay, ASMFC and the VMRC continue to maintain Chesapeake Bay Cap as a precautionary conservation measure to protect Chesapeake Bay nursery grounds," Widgeon wrote.

Originally reported by the Virginia Mercury, Virginia lawmakers recently delayed deciding on conducting a study on if menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay are declining or not.

Cortez also shared concerns about several board members having special interests and not recusing themselves in cases where their businesses may benefit from commission decisions.

Associate Commissioner A.J. Erskine joined Cowart Seafood Corporation and Bevans Oyster Company in 2005 to develop oyster aquaculture programs, according to VMRC. Associate Commissioner Lynn Kellum is the President of Ampro Shipyard & Diesel.

"While the Code of Virginia does not spell out circumstances that a board member must recuse themselves in, we have full confidence that Associate Commissioners will and have recused themselves from participating in regulatory processes when they have a reasonable conflict of interest in-line with all ethical considerations. Associate Commissioners actively consult attorneys versed in conflict of interest and take all steps prudent to avoiding to avoiding a conflict of interest in their duties. We expect and are confident that Associate Commissioners operate in full transparency during commission meetings," Widgeon wrote to CBS 6.

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