A public official in Grady County is under federal indictment for his part in an alleged scheme to unlawfully purchase fish from unlicensed fishermen for a seafood business where he works.
Byron James Puckett is indicted on one charge of conspiracy and 24 violations of the Lacey Act, a federal law that makes it illegal to buy or sell wild game, fish or plants obtained unlawfully. Puckett, who serves on the Grady County Board of Education, plead not guilty Thursday in federal court in Albany. He was arrested and released on $10,000 bond. Puckett is being represented by Bainbridge attorney Gilbert Murrah.
On Thursday Grady County School Superintendent Dr. Tommy Pharis released the following statement on behalf of Board Chairman Cuy Harrell III, “We are aware of no statute or Board policy that requires the Board of Education to take action at this time.”
The indictment states that Puckett, as vice president of Harper’s Seafood in Thomasville, conspired with Junior Wayne Harper, owner of Harper’s Seafood, “to knowingly engage in conduct involving the sale and purchase of fish . . .knowing that said fish were taken, possessed, transported and sold in violation of and in a manner unlawful under the laws and regulations of the State of Florida . . .” The conspiracy allegedly occurred between January 2005 and April 2008.
Harper, along with two fishermen named in the indictment, Charles Stacey Logue and Ronnie Irvin Burdette, entered not guilty pleas in federal magistrate court on Tuesday. Harper was released on a $10,000 bond and Logue and Burdette were released on a $5,000 bond each.
The indictment, handed down June 16 by a federal Grand Jury, states Harper and Puckett purchased seafood from nearly 50 fishermen unlicensed to catch certain saltwater species, including Logue and Burdette. The indictment also lists the initials of three other fishermen, stating their identities are known to the Grand Jury. The indictment alleges that neither Logue nor Burdette have a “saltwater products license with a restricted species endorsement, nor did approximately 45 other fishermen from whom Harper’s Seafood purchased fish.” Some of the fish named include red grouper, black grouper and red snapper harvested and purchased during a closed season in the Gulf of Mexico.
The indictment states Harper and Puckett worked to conceal their illegal purchases by either submitting falsified Marine Fisheries Trip Tickets to the State of Florida that claimed they had purchased a different species of fish, or failing to submit any tickets at all.
In all, there are 58 counts in the indictment. Harper and Puckett are named in the first count of conspiracy; Harper, Puckett and Logue are named in counts 2-5 for Lacey Act Violations for knowingly purchasing and selling fish in interstate commerce and knowing those fish were caught in violation of Florida laws on three different dates in November 2006 and once in November 2007; Harper and Logue are named in counts 6-23 for Lacey Act violations between November 2007 and April 2008 on 18 different dates; Harper, Puckett and Burdette are named in counts 24-38 for Lacey Act violations between July 2006 and May 2007 on 15 different dates; Harper and Burdette are named in counts 39-53, also Lacey Act violations between August 2007 and April 2008 on 15 different dates; and Harper and Puckett are named in counts 54-58 for Lacey Act violations of submitting five false Marine Fisheries Trip Tickets identifying red snapper as either gag grouper or scamp during the first four months of 2008.
Certain overt acts spelled out in detail in the indictment include a Jan. 6, 2005 incident when Harper’s Seafood purchased 265 pounds of various species of fish for the wholesale price of $904.50 from “J.B.”; and on Oct. 13, 2005, Harper’s purchased 781 pounds of various fish for $2,451 from Logue including 545 pounds of black grouper caught out of season; and on Feb. 4, 2008 Harper purchased “an unknown quantity and species of fish for $791.75 from Burdette, who did not have the required saltwater products license. . .”