Sue De Lapa
PARADISE LOST: Tsunamis and now underwater mayhem mar the tranquility of Hawai‘i’s Kona Coast.
Rough Trade in Kona’s Reefs
Of Salt-Water Aquariums and Beanie Babies
Thursday, June 12, 2014
UNDERWATER ATTACK: I’ve spent time on Hawai‘i’s normally calm Kona Coast, whose serenity was shattered May 8 when a diver documenting reef damage and the controversial aquarium trade had her breathing regulator ripped off 50 feet underwater by a fish harvester.
Rene Umberger, who survived the attack, protested, “This man needs to be arrested immediately for attempted murder.”
Although the attack was captured on video, which went viral on the Internet, no charges have been filed by investigating officials as of this writing, to my knowledge. It’s also created an angry backlash on the Islands against those who would regulate or ban the trade that furnishes decorative fish for living-room-aquarium hobbyists.
Umberger was diving as part of Sea Shepherd’s Operation Reef Defense, which claims an “estimated 350,000 reef animals are taken off the Kona Coast of Hawai‘i each year and sold to the aquarium trade” and that “more than 90 percent will be dead within one year.”
But the aquarium trade is lucrative in Hawai‘i, and divers strenuously defend their work, which is legal if you have permits. The Sea Shepherd people are “nothing but terrorists trying to strip everyone’s rights away,” argued one Internet post.
I haven’t been back to Kona since a savage 2011 tsunami wiped out the collection of fancy huts called Kona Village, a resort formerly owned by Ty Warner. I await a calming of the waters and rebirth of Kona Village.
TAME JUDGES? A lively but less physical debate is also stirring U.S. legal circles: Are federal judges giving rich tax cheats like Ty Warner an easy break?
Prosecutors appealing the Beanie Baby mogul’s sentence have filed a brief claiming that when a Chicago judge gave Warner probation, it was an unreasonable, unwarranted “get-out-of-jail” card based largely on his charitable donations.
Although the billionaire “hid more than $100 million in secret Swiss bank accounts, refused to report at least $24 million of income to the IRS, and evaded at least $5.5 million in taxes” through “evasive conduct,” prosecutors wrote in their appeal, he escaped the jail penalty other tax evaders had been hit with.
Judging from a transcript of the January 14 hearing, Federal Judge Charles P. Kocoras was plainly sympathetic with the part-time Santa Barbaran, though prosecutors argue that his charity only amounted to a fraction of his wealth.
The appeal probably won’t be heard by the Midwest’s 7th District Court of Appeals until after summer. The feds may have a hard time reversing the judge’s probation ruling for Warner. Even though federal sentencing guidelines call for a jail term of 46-57 months, Judge Kocoras had great leeway, due to the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court Booker case.
Not that Warner’s getting off scot-free: For one thing, he was assessed a $53 million penalty, a heavy hit compared with his $5.5 million “profit” from a decade of tax-dodging. This crime didn’t pay.
The $5.5 million is peanuts for a man worth $1.7 billion. Kocoras pointed out that Warner, 69, donated nearly $140 million in cash and toys during his lifetime and had submitted 70 gushing letters on his behalf, 29 from current and past employees.
Meanwhile, the Warner case is reverberating around legal circles and the Internet. Janet Novack, staff writer for Forbes business magazine, wrote a May 14 piece headlined “Federal Judges Are Cutting Rich Tax Cheats Big Sentencing Breaks.”
Since Booker, only one tax sentence has been reversed on appeal, Novack noted. Warner likely would have escaped prosecution altogether under the federal amnesty program, like 43,000 others nabbed in offshore tax cases.
After his Swiss banker was indicted, Warner applied for amnesty, but it was too late. Feds already had him in their sights, making him ineligible. Warner’s not taking any chances in case the appeals court rules against him. According to word in legal circles, he’s just hired a top D.C. attorney, Paul Clement, to handle his appeal. Clement was the lead lawyer challenging Obamacare before the U.S. Supreme Court. To court observers, this signals that Warner will go to the Supremes if necessary.
MURDER BY THE BOOK: As the whodunit progressed at the Circle Bar B Ranch Dinner Theatre, I tried to guess who, if anyone, would end up dead (or alive). I couldn’t guess, and I doubt if you could either. It’s a delightful British-style play sparkling with wit. Keep an eye on young smart-ass Dillon Yuhasz as the nosy neighbor. He’s fun to watch. (Through July 13.)