Carlos Rafael, a New Bedford-based fisherman who owned, operated and controlled much of the region’s fishing fleet, pleaded guilty to dozens of federal fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion charges Thursday. The fishing mogul now faces up to 6-and-a-half years in prison.
Around New Bedford, Rafael is known as the ‘Codfather.’ The 64-year-old Portuguese immigrant built a remarkable business, with more than 40 boats at his disposal. His business was so robust, Rafael was allowed to catch about 25 percent of all of the fish New England’s fishermen may bring ashore each season.
But Rafael got caught up in a federal sting operation. In February last year, prosecutors say Rafael explained his scheme to undercover IRS agents.
Rafael told investigators that he would catch highly-restricted fish species, re-label them as more common species, and then falsify reports to mislead regulators. Rafael then sold the mis-reported fish to a dealer in New York for cash. Portions of the cash were smuggled out of the country.
Because Rafael owns both the vessels and the distributor, he was able to maintain a closed loop of deception, where both the vessel trip reports and the dealer reports contained the same fake information.
To local fishing family mambers like Brett Tolley of Chatham, Rafael took advantage of the region’s fishing management system, which Tolley says favors bigger operations like Rafael’s over smaller, family operations.
“When you look at the severity of this crime,” Tolley said, “we liken the situation to the Bernie Madoffs and the impact that they had in the financial industry. This is no different.”
Rafael and his attorney did not answer questions after Thursday’s hearing. And it’s not clear what will happen to Rafael’s business, which is allowed to catch a significant amount of the region’s total fishing quota.
“The mood amongst the fishermen that we work with is a deep level of frustration and anger,” Tolley said. “We want to see justice.”
In addition to being a fourth-generation Chatham fisherman, Tolley also is an organizer with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. And, for his part, Tolley says what it comes down to is that the regulatory system needs to change.
“This is not a ‘bad apple’ story,” he said. “This is not just one person who went so rogue and so far out of the lines that now that it’s addressed, the problem is over. The conditions that allowed Carlos Rafael to thrive are still in place. And unless that gets addressed, we will see another Carlos Rafael emerge from this vacuum that’s about to be created.”
In total, Rafael pleaded guilty to 28 counts of fraud, bulk cash smuggling, conspiracy and tax evasion. He is scheduled to be sentenced on June 27th, when he could face anywhere from three-and-a-half to six-and-a-half years in prison.