Carlos Rafael, the New Bedford fishing magnate whose brash business style earned him the nickname “The Codfather,” was sentenced to nearly four years in prison Monday for tax evasion and flouting fishing quotas, a case that could impact the ability of hundreds of fishermen to continue working out of the port where he ran his illicit enterprise.
In the federal courthouse in Boston, Rafael, 65, told US District Judge William G. Young he mislabeled more than 700,000 pounds of fish not out of greed, but to protect workers whose jobs were threatened by limits on dwindling cod stocks.
“This is the stupidest thing I ever did,” Rafael said in a statement read by his lawyer, William Kettlewell “I didn’t do it to hurt anybody. I did it so my people could keep their paychecks.”
His account drew a biting rebuke from Young.
“This was not stupid,” Young said, his voice sharp as he imposed the sentence that federal prosecutors recommended. “This was a corrupt course of action from start to finish. It’s a course of action of extensive corruption designed to benefit you, to line your pockets. That’s what it is and why the court has sentenced you as it has.”
Assistant Attorney General Andrew Lelling, who prosecuted the case and was recently nominated as US attorney for Massachusetts, said the 46-month sentence was justified, saying that Rafael arrogantly defied the law and bragged about it to undercover federal agents. Rafael’s lawyers had sought a sentence of two years of probation and home confinement.
Lelling said Rafael evaded federal limits by falsely reporting cod as less valuable fish, hurting small fishermen who followed the law.
Rafael owns one of the largest groundfish fishing fleets in the United States. The court did not address what will happen to his 13 vessels and the valuable fishing permits used in Rafael’s scheme. The federal government is seeking to seize those assets, worth more than $19 million.
Officials in New Bedford have been urging the federal government to keep the permits within the city and not reissue them to fishermen in other parts of the region. The decision could fall to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the regulatory agency known as NOAA.
On Monday, more than 40 fishermen who worked for Rafael came from New Bedford to watch the sentencing. Many said they were stunned by his sentence and afraid they would now lose their jobs.
“He kept hundreds of jobs afloat,” said Shawn Machie, an Acushnet fisherman who works on one of Rafael’s boats. Machie, 47, who has 3-month-old twins, said Rafael was forced to skirt regulations that prevent fishermen from making a good living.
“It wouldn’t be like this if it weren’t for unfair regulations,” Machie said. “Why does the government got to squeeze people into a position where they gotta do stuff like this to survive?’’
In court, Kettlewell recounted Rafael’s rise from a teenage immigrant from Portugal who sold fish off the back of his truck to the top of the industry. He described Rafael as a magnanimous business owner who violated regulations to maintain a business that was losing money as fish stocks dwindled. He could have sold that business and concentrated on his more profitable scalloping operation, but chose not to, Kettlewell said.
“Why? Because Mr. Rafael did not want to lay off employees,” Kettlewell said before sentencing. Rafael was motivated to “try and keep these boats working, try to keep these people employed. That’s what’s going on. It’s not greed.”
Kettlewell said Rafael had financially supported the widow of a fisherman lost at sea and had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities and shelters.
“He’s gone to extraordinary lengths to help people when they were in need,” Kettlewell said.
But Megan Herzog, an attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, said the sentence “sends a strong message that systemic abuse of our fishery resources will not be tolerated.”
“While others played by the rules, Mr. Rafael showed brazen disregard for fishermen, their families, and the health of our ocean environment. Going forward, it is critical that we implement stronger monitoring and enforcement at sea in order to ensure New England’s fishing industry operates on a level playing field.”
Dressed in a dark suit, Rafael sat on a bench outside the courtroom after the sentence. His face ashen, he declined to comment. His sentence will begin Nov. 6.David Abel of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Maria Cramer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer.