Feds urge rejection of plea in S.F. oil spill case

Federal prosecutors have urged a U.S. judge in San Francisco to reject a ship management company's offer to plead no contest to eight criminal charges stemming from a San Francisco Bay oil spill last year.

Prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Susan Illston in a filing late Tuesday that allowing Fleet Management Ltd. to enter such a plea would be inappropriate because the company would not have to accept responsibility for the allegedly “serious crimes it has committed.”

Hong Kong-based Fleet Management was operating the Cosco Busan when the container ship struck a protective fender of the Bay Bridge on Nov. 7, 2007, and spilled nearly 54,000 gallons of oil into the Bay.

The company is accused of polluting the Bay, killing migratory birds and six counts of false statements and obstruction of justice for allegedly creating false transit documents after the incident.

Prosecutors charged in the filing that Fleet Management failed to train the crew properly and made financially motivated “conscious decisions not to follow safe management practices and safe navigational procedures.”

The federal attorneys wrote, “An accident waiting to happen is not an accident.”

In a no-contest plea, a defendant does not admit guilt, but accepts liability for the sentence or fines that would result from a conviction. A judge must grant permission for the plea.

Fleet Management told Illston earlier this month that it wants to plead no contest to resolve the case and avoid a costly trial, which is now scheduled for Nov. 17. The judge will consider the request at a Sept. 22 hearing.

The criminal fines for the eight counts against the company could amount to either more than $3 million or twice the financial loss caused by the incident.

Pilot John Cota, 60, of Petaluma, also faces criminal charges in the spill and is due to be tried together with Fleet Management on two of the counts at the Nov. 17 trial.

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