The U.S. Justice Department has secured 16 guilty pleas in connection with a long-running merchant mariner licensing scam. The defendants all admitted to paying a Coast Guard employee for fake Coast Guard test exam scores, bypassing the qualification system required to obtain an officer-level license.
The licenses that they admittedly obtained in this fraudulent scheme ran the full range, up to unlimited chief mate and unlimited master. Sentencing is scheduled for April and May, and the maximum penalty for each conviction is five years’ imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.
The indictment alleges that the defendants’ false scores were entered by former Coast Guard credentialing specialist Dorothy Smith, who worked at the exam center in Mandeville, Louisiana (REC New Orleans). Smith allegedly used middlemen to connect her with mariners who were willing to pay for false exam scores.
These intermediaries would funnel money and the mariners’ requests to Smith, who would falsely report in a Coast Guard computer system that the mariners had passed the exams, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors identified two former Coast Guard employees, Eldridge Johnson and Beverly McCrary, as intermediaries for Smith’s scheme.
Four mariners – identified as Alexis Bell, Micheal (or Michael) Wooten, Sharron Robinson and Alonzo Williams – also alledgely acted as middlemen for Smith, in addition to benefiting from her score-fixing services themselves.
In total, 31 individuals have been indicted in connection with the case. Smith and 14 others have not entered guilty pleas.
Second licensing scandal in months
The exam-fixing scandal is the second case involving U.S. Coast Guard licensing fraud in less than four months. Last October, an administrator at the Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy was charged with creating a fraudulent scheme to obtain money by “creating counterfeit course certificates from [the academy] and selling them directly to individual mariners seeking various merchant mariner seafarer qualifications.”
The certificates were submitted to the U.S. Coast Guard and shipping lines as proof of completion of required training, but the mariners had never actually taken the courses.
Three additional individuals were indicted as co-conspirators for allegedly recruiting mariners for the scheme, which netted a total of $200,000 over three years.