On April 22, 2008, a federal grand jury in San Francisco returned an indictment charging John Joseph Cota, a ship pilot licensed by the United States Coast Guard and the State of California, with making false statements in 2006 and 2007 to the Coast Guard concerning his medications and medical conditions. The false statements arose from annual physical examinations that pilots are required to complete every
year to maintain their pilot’s license. Cota, was the pilot of the Cosco Busan and was previously charged with negligently causing the discharge of approximately 50,000 gallons of oil in San Francisco Bay from the 65,131-ton container ship when he caused the ship to collide with the San Francisco Bay Bridge on November 7, 2007.
The grand jury’s indictment supersedes the previous indictment. This indictment also includes charges against Cota for violating the Clean Water Act, as amended by the Oil Spill Act of 1990, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by causing the death of protected species of migratory birds.
The new false statement charges involve the making of false statements to the Coast Guard on required annual medical forms. Coast Guard regulations require that pilots have an annual physical examination that results in the completion of a medical evaluation form. The form must be completed by a licensed physician or physician assistant, and signed by the pilot. The grand jury’s indictment charges that Cota knowingly and willfully made materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements and representations on the required medical forms in that he certified that all the information he provided was complete and true to the best of his knowledge. The indictment alleges that in fact, Cota knew that the information he provided was neither complete nor true, including information regarding his current medications, the dosage, possible side effects and medical conditions for which the medications were taken.
The indictment also charges that on November 7, 2007, Cota negligently caused the discharge of approximately 50,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil from the Cosco Busan in violation of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. According to the charges, while piloting the ship from port in heavy fog, he failed to pilot a collision free course and failed to adequately review the proposed course with the captain and crew on official navigational charts. The indictment further charges that he failed to use the ship’s radar as he approached the Bay Bridge, failed to maintain a safe speed in light of limited visibility, and failed to use positional fixes or verify the ship’s position using official aids of navigation, throughout the voyage. According to the indictment, these failures led to the Cosco Busan striking the bridge and spilling the oil. As a result of the discharge of heavy fuel oil from the Cosco Busan, approximately 2,000 birds died, including Brown Pelicans, Marbled Murrelets and Western Grebes. The Brown Pelican is a federally endangered species and the Marbled Murrelet is a federally threatened species and an endangered species under California law.
Cota faces a maximum penalty for the false statements act of five years in prison and a $250,000.00 criminal fine. The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act is one year in prison and a $100,000.00 fine, and the maximum penalty for a misdemeanor violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is 6 months in prison and a $15,000.00 fine.
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