WASHINGTON— Today, a federal grand jury returned an indictment charging John Joseph Cota, a U.S. Coast Guard and California licensed ship pilot, with making false statements to the Coast Guard concerning his medications and medical conditions in 2006 and 2007. The false statements arose from annual physical examinations that pilots are required to complete every year to maintain their pilot’s license.
Cota, who was the pilot of the Cosco Busan, 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 Nov. 7, 2007.
The grand jury’s indictment supersedes and includes charges brought previously by a criminal information that charged Cota with violating the Clean Water Act (CWA), 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 charges include two counts of making 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.
Cota was licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard and the State of California as a Bar Pilot, according to the indictment. He was a member of the San Francisco Bar Pilots and had been employed in the San Francisco Bay since 1981. Pilots are licensed professionals who are responsible for navigating ships through challenging waters. In California, large ocean-going vessels are required to be piloted when entering or leaving port.
The indictment charges that on Nov. 7, 2007, Cota negligently caused the discharge of approximately 50,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil from the Cosco Busan in violation of the CWA, as amended by 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. Further, 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.
The maximum penalty violation of the false statements act is five years in prison and a $250,000 criminal fine. The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor violation of the CWA is one year in prison and a $100,000 fine, and the maximum penalty for a misdemeanor violation of the MBTA is 6 months in prison and a $15,000 fine. Mr. Cota’s initial appearance on this charge is not yet scheduled.
An indictment is merely an accusation. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty at trial beyond a reasonable doubt.
The investigation is ongoing and is being conducted by the Coast Guard Investigative Service, the EPA Criminal Investigation Division, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game, Office of Spill Prevention and Response.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Stacey Geis and Jonathan Schmidt of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California, and Richard A. Udell, Senior Trial Attorney with the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section.
Under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, crime victims are afforded certain statutory rights including the opportunity to attend all public hearings and provide input to the prosecution. Those adversely impacted by the oil spill are encouraged to visit http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/can/community/notifications to learn more about the case and the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.