Towboat owner headed for prison, two crewmembers may follow

A co-owner of the Louisiana towboat company involved in a collision and major spill on the Mississippi River is going to prison. Two of his mariner employees have pleaded guilty to federal charges.

The criminal cases resulted from the July 23, 2008, collision between the towing vessel Mel Oliver's barge and the 600-foot tanker MT Tintomara. About 282,828 gallons of fuel oil spilled. Investigators said Mel Oliver was operated by an apprentice mate after the captain had left the boat unexpectedly to visit his girlfriend.

Randall Dantin, one of the owners of DRD Towing, was sentenced in January to 21 months in prison after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice. Dantin, 46, of Marrero, La., also admitted to violating the Ports and Waterways Safety Act and the Clean Water Act. He will pay $250,000 in fines and serve two years probation.

Three tugboats hold up a barge that was split in two during the July 2008 collision involving Mel Oliver and Tintomara in the Mississippi River. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Mel Oliver's captain, Terry Carver, pleaded guilty to creating a hazardous condition when he left the vessel "under the direction and control of an under-licensed employee," U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said in a statement.

Carver, 40, of Glasford, Ill., admitted that he placed his apprentice mate in charge of the towboat before departing the boat for personal reasons. Coast Guard regulations allow an apprentice mate to operate a towing vessel only when the captain is present.

The apprentice mate, John Bavaret, 41, of Jefferson, La., pleaded guilty to two counts of creating a hazardous condition, including a felony.

The case is a warning to the nation's mariners that it's usually too risky to follow an unlawful order from superiors, said Jeanne Grasso, a maritime attorney with Blank Rome LLP in Washington. If a mariner is instructed to act beyond the scope of his or her license, that mariner should complain up the chain of command, said Grasso, who was not involved in the Mel Oliver cases.

Mel Oliver apprentice mate John Bavaret answers questions during a Coast Guard investigative hearing later that year. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

"The general rule is, you comply with the law," Grasso said. "If someone is asking you to do something that is illegal or you don't think is right, you need to keep elevating until you find someone to support you."

The U.S. Attorney said Carver left Mel Oliver three days before the accident.

"At the time Carver left, both Bavaret and Carver knew that there was no properly licensed employee to operate as captain on board the Mel Oliver," Letten wrote. "Bavaret did not notify DRD that (Carver) had left the vessel, nor did he notify the Coast Guard that there was an unlicensed person operating the Mel Oliver. For the next three days, in violation of federal law, Bavaret operated the Mel Oliver alone."

Mel Oliver's barge, DM932, was split in two by the Liberian-flagged tanker.

"Bavaret lost situational awareness and allowed the head of the Mel Oliver tow … to negligently swing out into the Mississippi River and cross the path of the MT Tintomara," the U.S. Attorney wrote.

Dantin admitted that he deleted electronic payroll documents before casualty investigators could see them. Investigators said DRD routinely placed under-licensed personnel in charge of vessels and paid captains to operate 24 hours a day in violation of the Coast Guard's 12-hour rule.

Dantin's attorney, Provino "Vinny" Mosca, said DRD management didn't learn until after the accident that the Mel Oliver captain had left his post. An attorney would have advised Dantin not to delete documents, which investigators retrieved from a hard drive.

"It's best to get advice from a lawyer as soon as possible," Mosca said. An attorney "could have indicated what conduct is proper and what conduct is not proper, and this (obstruction charge) probably never would have happened."

Grasso warns against attempting to falsify records or hide evidence during casualty investigations, because the cover-up often can get you in the most trouble.

"Post-incident conduct will almost always lead to criminal prosecution," Grasso said. "The government takes obstruction of justice and false statements very seriously. … It's incumbent upon companies to train their mariners and to stress that non-compliance is not an option."

Carver and Bavaret were due to be sentenced in April. The attorneys in the case didn't release information on an agreed-to sentence. Each man faces possible prison time and a fine.

Carver's defense lawyer, Gary Schwabe, and Bavaret's attorney Dwight Doskey didn't reply to requests for comment.

Grasso said mariners must be willing to walk away from an employer who pressures them into carrying out an unlawful order.

"If your company is asking you to do something illegal, jeopardizing your job and your liberty, is that really the company you want to work for?" Grasso said. "The risk is too great. It's not only the risk of prosecution, it's the risk of losing your license and not being able to work in the maritime industry."

By Professional Mariner Staff