Obama pardons fish dealer for 1991 bid-rigging scheme

Until recently, few of the fishermen who work out of the docks of Gloucester Harbor talked about James A. Bordinaro. But on March 1, Bordinaro became a household name here after he was pardoned by President Obama for his part in bid-rigging and falsely certifying fish from Canada as caught in US waters and sold to the government more than 25 years ago.

Bordinaro, one of 17 people recently pardoned by Obama, could not be reached for comment. After he entered a plea agreement with the government in 1991, he received a 12-month jail sentence, and his family-owned fish processing company, Empire Fish, was fined $355,000. The company, which had stood on Harbor Loop for decades, eventually went into bankruptcy and was sold.

White House spokesman Keith Maley declined to comment on Bordinaro, but said the group of 17 had earned the right to be pardoned.

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“As he has in past years, the president granted these individuals clemency because they have demonstrated genuine remorse and a strong commitment to being law-abiding, productive citizens and active members of their communities,” Maley said in a prepared statement.

According to a 1991 Globe report, Bordinaro’s company was one of six fish-processing plants involved in a scheme to fix prices and falsely certify Canadian-caught fish. Six other fishing executives from Gloucester, Boston, New Bedford, and Rockland, Maine also pleaded guilty to similar charges.

Back in the swashbuckling fishing days of the 1970s when Gloucester boats brought back massive catches of groundfish such as cod, haddock, and flounder, Bordinaro was a familiar face around the harbor and a spokesman for the fishing industry.

According to court documents, Bordinaro began to conspire with Francis J. O’Hara, of F. J. O’Hara and Sons of Rockland, Maine, to fix bids for fish sales to the Defense Personnel Support Center, a purchasing center for the Department of Defense, in 1981. According to the government, the arrangement continued until 1989.

“Each week, Bordinaro and O’Hara conferred by telephone. The two men would agree which company would be the designated low bidder and what the low bid would be. The companies would then submit bids to [the support center] on their designated items at the set prices and would submit complementary bids — that is, intentionally high and unsuccessful bids,” the US District Court wrote in its 1991 opinion.

During that same time period, the support center also required that all seafood sold to the Department of Defense be caught in US waters. By the early 1980s, fish stocks began to dwindle — causing the government to create austere regulations a decade later to prevent the collapse of the fishing industry. Also, in 1984, a World Court decision allowed Canadians to catch fish near US waters. According to court documents, Bordinaro began to purchase Canadian-landed fish in 1986 and certify it as US-landed before selling it to the federal government.

As word of the pardon spread along the harbor, several fishing executives remembered Bordinaro as a “nice guy” who got caught during a period when fishermen and regulators began to realize that the New England coast had been overfished and was in danger of collapse.

Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, praised Bordinaro’s pardon, and said she hoped it would help clear his name.

“I think it’s great. He’s a good person. I think unfortunately in life you get labeled and no matter what happened, that label sometimes never goes away,” she said.

Joey Ciaramitaro, a lobster dealer, said that the fishing landscape had changed so dramatically in the last few decades that few people remember the case. He said he was happy for Bordinaro, but added that the pardon had taken locals by surprise: “The question that I hear is: Why the pardon now?”