The Cape Cod small businessman who pleaded guilty to multiple charges earlier this year after receiving stolen oysters seems likely to see his licenses to buy and sell seafood revoked soon.
Joseph Vaudo, the owner of Joe’s Lobster Mart in Sandwich, has been facing that prospect throughout the summer. A hearing was held Thursday to contest the Department of Public Health’s move to strip Vaudo of the licenses that he says would cost him his business if lost.
You can read more about the charges here, but in short: A police investigation last fall, including surveillance tapes, showed Vaudo to have received stolen oysters from Michael Bryant of Yarmouth, who was sentenced to two years in prison for the theft.
In March, Vaudo paid a fine of $6,250 as part of his plea. He also lost in the court of public opinion. After the news came out, some Sandwich residents boycotted the store. And Vaudo, whose business has operated for 43 years, lost his seat on the Sandwich Planning Board to a late write-in candidate.
That wasn’t the end of it. Because the oysters were not procured in line with regulations, they could poise a health issue—reason enough, DPH argued, to strip Vaudo of his licenses.
Kenneth Bresler, the magistrate who heard the case for the state’s Division of Administrative Law Appeals, ruled earlier this summer that DPH had the right to strip the permits. The hearing amounted to a chance for Vaudo to make his case to DPH representatives who will make a final recommendation to DPH Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett. (Vaudo’s attorney, John Kiernan, expressed concern throughout the hearing that he and Vaudo could not argue directly to the decision maker, and that Bresler had declined to offer a recommendation as magister.)
Vaudo and Kiernan nonetheless argued that even if DPH could revoke the license, it shouldn’t.
Vaudo spoke publicly at the hearing for the first time since the March guilty plea. He said he dumped the oysters into the Cape Cod Canal after receiving them. Kiernan said nobody reported falling sick after the oysters were received, and insisted the oysters never made it to customers. That meant, Kiernan said, that they never were an actual threat to public health.
Kiernan also spoke of the about 20 workers Vaudo employs during peak season (the number is closer to six during the offseason), and of Vaudo’s place in the seafood supply chain as both a wholesaler and retailer. An employee, a supplier, and a buyer each testified on Vaudo’s behalf at the hearing. Taking the license away, Kiernan said, “would be like killing a mosquito with a sledgehammer.”
DPH’s representatives were unswayed. “Public health—that’s the main argument for the respondent. ‘The oysters didn’t harm the public, therefore let’s ignore everything else,’” DPH attorney James Strong said. “Does that mean public health wasn’t at risk? Or do we do something about it?”
Madeline Piper, another attorney with DPH, said she would recommend that the license be revoked, and told reporters following the hearing that the recommendation could be made “within a day.” She could not say when a recommendation might be acted upon.
Things got particularly weird at one point during the hearing, when Strong asked Vaudo whether he had ever “pulled a gun” on a DPH inspector. Vaudo said: “I don’t own a gun, sir.” Asked again, Vaudo said: “No, sir.” Strong moved along in his questioning, and when asked by reporters, declined to elaborate on why he put forth the question.
Following the hearing, attorneys from the two sides conversed loudly enough for reporters to overhear. Kiernan sounded resigned to the idea that the license would be taken away, asking that Vaudo be given a period of a week or two to sell the remaining inventory—worth about $200,000—he has on hand. Piper indicated that was unlikely, saying Vaudo had months to prepare for a revocation of the licenses.
In general, DPH does not appear interested in negotiating with Vaudo. Asked at a preliminary hearing in June whether the department felt a settlement was possible, Strong said: “At this point, it’s unlikely.” On Thursday, Kiernan said Vaudo had made a settlement offer, with terms that he would not sell oysters for a period of three months. He never received a counteroffer. Strong, speaking for DPH, told Boston.com following the hearing that the department had received and rejected the offer, but declined to elaborate on why no counteroffer was made.
If and when the licenses are revoked, Vaudo could appeal to the legal system. However, Piper said, he would not be able to stay open during that period. He could also reapply for the necessary permits to operate next year—but it’s difficult to imagine, based on the proceedings Thursday, that DPH would be all that interested in granting them.