Engineer in pollution case cops plea, goes free

OCTOBER 2, 2014 — Los Angeles headquartered law firm Arent Fox reports that on September 29, 2014 it secured the freedom of Dejan Vodopic, a Croatian citizen and cargo ship chief engineer who was indefinitely held by United States officials for almost a year pending an investigation into environmental violations. Complex Litigation partner Michael Zweiback, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, led a team from Arent Fox that included associates Rachel L. Fiset and Erin C. Perez.

Mr. Vodopic was the chief engineer of the M/V Bellavia, a 960-foot-long, Panamax-size ship operated by Germany's Herm. Dauelsberg GmbH & Co. KG involved in a 2013 incident that subsequently led to the company paying $1.25 million in penalties and four crew members collecting $500,000 in whistleblower awards (see earlier story).

According to Arent Fox, in October 2013, Mr. Vodopic was accused of discharging oil into the Pacific Ocean in violation of international maritime law. He and eleven other crew members were held in the United States pursuant to a security agreement between the operator of the M/V Bellavia and the U.S. Government. The agreement provided for the release of the vessel in exchange for the indefinite detention of the crew members.

Arent Fox says that Mr. Vodopic and the other crew members were never consulted or shown the agreement, but were still held thousands of miles away from their homes and families for nearly a year. During this time, they were unable to exercise their procedural rights.

"Dejan and the rest of the crew were held without due process rights," said Mr. Zweiback. "A contract between their company and the United States Coast Guard allowed the United States Attorneys' Office to indefinitely detain the crew and prevent them from departing the country. As a result, they had no rights under the material witness statutes defined under the United States Criminal Code because unlike in almost every other criminal case, the government does not designate these individuals as material witnesses in ship-based environmental cases."

The U.S. government had been seeking a prison sentence for Mr. Vodopic after accusing him of pumping fuel out of a tank that had been compromised during a shipping accident in the Panama Canal. The government initially sought two counts against Mr. Vodopic for failing to maintain an accurate record book and making false statements.

Arent Fox negotiated a plea deal that includes a probationary sentence and a fine of $15,000 on one count of a conspiracy for failure to report a hazardous condition, a charge that is not premised on false statements or an oil discharge.

The United States District Court for the Central District of California accepted the plea agreement, imposed a probationary sentence, and, in an unusual step, released Mr. Vodopic immediately so that he could depart for his home country of Slovenia.

While Mr. Vodopic, a Croatian citizen, is now home in Slovenia with his wife and three young daughters, the Bellavia's captain, Mitar Miseljic, pled guilty to a conspiracy to defraud the United States and is awaiting sentencing.

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