Shipping company renews bid for no-contest plea in Bay spill

A Hong Kong shipping company has renewed its bid to a federal judge for permission to plead no contest to eight criminal charges stemming from a San Francisco Bay oil spill last year.

Fleet Management Ltd. argued in papers filed late Thursday that a no-contest plea has the same “stature and import” as a guilt conviction and that a criminal judgment “is a bitter pill for a company, no matter how you get there.”

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston will hold a hearing in San Francisco Monday on whether the company can plead no contest to charges of polluting the bay, killing migratory birds and creating false transit documents after the Nov. 7, 2007, spill.

Fleet Management was operating the Cosco Busan when the container ship struck a protective fender of the Bay Bridge in heavy fog and spilled nearly 54,000 gallons of oil into the Bay.

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.

The company told the judge earlier this month that it wanted to enter the plea to avoid a costly trial and to allow blame to be apportioned in several separate civil lawsuits now pending in federal court.

But prosecutors have argued that the plea would be inappropriate because the company would not have to accept responsibility for the allegedly “serious crimes it has committed.”

Federal prosecutors contend Fleet Management failed to train the ship's crew properly. They said in a filing this week that the Chinese captain and crew were placed on the ship for the first time only 14 hours before the ship sailed from South Korea two weeks before the spill.

Pilot John Cota, 60, of Petaluma, also faces criminal charges in the spill and is scheduled to be tried on two of the charges together with Fleet Management in Illston's court on Nov. 17.

Illston at the hearing Monday will also consider Cota's request to have the trial moved to Fresno because of extensive publicity. Cota also wants to be tried separately from Fleet Management if the judge requires the company to go to trial.

Cota's lawyers have argued that since Fleet Management blames the accident partly on Cota, having a joint trial would be like having a second prosecutor for the pilot.

Bay City News

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