San Francisco News

Cota pleads guilty to environmental crimes

Friday, March 06, 2009

The man piloting the Cosco Busan when it hit the Bay Bridge and spilled thousands of gallons of oil entered a guilty plea in federal court Friday. His lawyers say he accepts some responsibility, but his plea deal requires the government acknowledge it was not all his fault.

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Retired bar pilot John Cota left federal court after pleading guilty to one count of negligently polluting the Bay and one count of killing migratory birds.

His attorney Jeffrey Bornstein says a plea deal was reached with the government that requires the blame be shared.

"There was an incompetent, untrained crew aboard which ship that made that ship unseaworthy and there is no way he understood that on that morning," Bornstein said.

Bornstein says the Coast Guard shares some responsibility for not warning the ship when they saw it headed for the Bay Bridge tower.

If Judge Susan Illston accepts the plea agreement, Cota's sentence would be between two and ten months in prison and a fine between $3,000 and $30,000

Bornstein says his client has already received an unfathomable penalty.

"When the government decides to bring an indictment like this for somebody who simply shows up for work and tries to do his job, even though as he now acknowledges he made a mistake he already and now he's going to go to prison for making a mistake, that's a huge price," Bornstein said.

The justice department says Friday's guilty plea is a reminder that the Cosco Busan crash was not just an accident, but a criminal act. This is not a case involving a mere mistake.

Bay watchdogs fear Cota's indictment and plea will not bring an end to ship accidents at the nation's foggiest port.

"These types of accidents will occur, so we do need better mechanisms to make sure we prevent oil spills and better procedure to make sure we respond much quicker to capture the oil before it spreads," League of Conservation Voters spokesperson Warner Chabot said.

The November 2007 accident spilled 53,000 gallons of oil and killed at least 2,000 birds.

The crew was given immunity in exchange for testimony. The ship's manager, Hong Kong-based Fleet Management, will face federal charges in September. If Cota's plea deal is accepted by the judge, he will be sentenced in June.

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