The Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District has a poacher on its board of commissioners.
Commissioner Aaron Newman, on the eve of trial, recently entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors in which he admitted to misdemeanor charges of illegally obtaining hunting tags, lying to a state agency and misusing abalone tags. (Additional charges, including a pair for felony perjury, were dismissed under the deal.) Newman's plea agreement saw him sentenced to three year's probation, ordered to serve 250 hours of community service and fined about $3,000. The deal puts an end to Newman's criminal case but raises questions in some circles about his ability to serve on a board charged in part with protecting the county's natural resources.
"If you're not respecting the conservation laws and environmental laws of the state of California, then I don't know how you can serve as an elected official that is in charge of conservation," said Natalynne DeLapp, the executive director for the Environmental Protection Information Center.
Elected to serve a four-year term on the board in 2011 to represent Division 1 — a swath of land ranging from Southern Eureka to the Ferndale area — Newman is a prominent local commercial fisherman. He sits as the president of the Humboldt Fishermen's Marketing Association and a member of the California Salmon Council, and served as a California advisor to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. Raised in Eureka, Newman is deeply rooted in the local fishing community. And his has been an important voice on the harbor commission board, according to fellow commissioners.
As news of Newman's plea was met with outrage in some circles, it appears to have been met with a shrug in others. Lila Johnson, the bookkeeper for the Humboldt Fishermen's Marketing Association, said she doesn't see Newman's convictions affecting his role as president in any way, saying, "We all think highly of him." Newman's fellow commissioners also voiced support for their colleague.
"I don't think it has a significant impact on his role as commissioner," said Commissioner Greg Dale. "I'm glad it's behind him and he can move on."
Commissioner Richard Marks agreed, lauding Newman's performance as a commissioner and the wealth of knowledge and experience he brings to the table. Fellow Commissioner Mike Wilson said Newman's future on the board is up to him, but quickly praised Newman as being a polite, respectful man who does his homework, puts in a tremendous amount of time and is invested in the community. And, Dale added, Newman is smart, often skillfully working to build consensus on the board and in the community to move issues forward.
But many in the environmental community find all that difficult to reconcile with the picture that arose during Newman's criminal case of a man who engaged in a pattern of behavior to repeatedly circumvent legal harvesting restrictions designed to protect California's natural resources.
Abalone fishing is tightly regulated in California. To legally harvest the mollusks, one is required to first acquire a permit, known as an abalone report card, which comes with 24 tags. When an abalone is harvested, state law requires that it must be immediately marked with one of the tags, limiting a person to no more than two dozen of them in a single season.
According to court records in Newman's case, he filed a sworn affidavit with Fish and Wildlife back in 2009 claiming he lost his report card after harvesting only three abalone. But when wardens searched his home, they found evidence that he'd harvested 21 before applying for the replacement card. Perhaps more troubling, the documents show Newman filed 11 affidavits with the state between 2003 and 2012 claiming to have lost his abalone report cards during the season, while no one else in the state sought replacement report cards more than twice over the same time period.
During the search, wardens also found evidence that Newman submitted documents to the state on Sept. 10, 2012 claiming to have lost his B-Zone deer tag before using it and requesting a replacement, when in fact he'd used the tag on a 4-point buck just eight days earlier.
Former Deputy District Attorney Christa McKimmy, who helped prosecute Newman's case, called his pattern of behavior "systematic."
Neither Newman nor his attorney, Manny Daskal, returned calls seeking comment for this story.
When looking at the case, DeLapp said it's important to remember that state agencies carefully calculate and plan the number of abalone, deer and other game species that can be harvested in a given year while still sustaining future populations. It's a delicate balance, she said, and one that counts on people to play by the rules, which Newman did not. "I don't think he should be back on the board," DeLapp said. "The district should consider asking him to resign."
Judging by the reaction of commissioners interviewed for this story, that seems unlikely to happen. More likely, the question of whether Newman's conduct should render him unfit for office is one voters will be left to decide next year.