Pilot requests prompt start for Bay oil-spill hearings

The legal fees for Capt. John Cota are mounting, and the beleaguered skipper asked for a jury trial by the end of May to help soften the blow to his budget.

The federal government charged Cota with two misdemeanors after the Cosco Busan, the 900-foot cargo ship he piloted Nov. 7, struck a fendering system at the base of the Bay Bridge while in dense fog, spilling more than 50,000 gallons of fuel and fouling Bay waters.

The San Francisco Bay’s famous tides quickly spread the fuel, harming delicate ecosystems and killing protected birds. Cota pleaded not guilty March 21 to the two misdemeanor environmental charges, which could land him up to 18 months in prison and $115,000 in fines.

Since the incident, Cota has, through attorneys, maintained that malfunctioning radar equipment and communication problems with the Chinese crew on the ship’s bridge contributed to the accident.

But Cota has added the U.S. Coast Guard and its vessel-traffic services, which operate as advisors to ships coming in and out of the Bay, as another entity to blame for the accident. His attorneys wrote in a letter to the National Transportation Safety Board on March 28 accusing the Coast Guard of failing to provide adequate warning.

His attorneys also alerted the NTSB that the 26-year bar pilot veteran will not testify at Tuesday and Wednesday’s hearings, asserting his legal right to not incriminate himself.

The six Chinese crew members — Capt. Sun Mao Cai, first mate Hong Zhi Wang, Kong Xiang Hu, Shun Biao Zhao, Liang Xian Zheng and Zong Bin Li —have not been charged with any crimes and are currently being housed by “vessel interests,” an agreement that ends May 31, Bornstein said in court Friday.

Cota also wants a May trial because an expert witness from a maritime academy is due to leave on a trip June 13, Bornstein said. But financial concerns also weighed heavily, he added.

“We have a limited budget to work with and we need to get this to trial,” he said, estimating a trial to last two to three weeks. Cota also requested a judge to preside over a potential settlement with the government on the charges, Bornstein said.

The case is due back in federal court May 5 because attorneys for the six Chinese crew members requested the crewmen, considered “material witnesses” in the case, either be released or allowed to offer sworn testimony in a deposition.

A look at the docket summary for the crewmen — they have not been charged with any crimes — reveals several mentions of grand jury materials. When asked if any grand jury proceedings were still underway, attorney Brian Getz, who represents Hong Zhi Wang, said, “I can’t comment on any grand jury proceedings because they are a secret.”

dsmith@examiner.com

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