How corrupt is the New Bedford waterfront?

John Bullard seems to think it’s more than a little corrupt. Jon Mitchell seems to think it’s corrupt mostly with one top guy. And Jim Kendall seems to think it’s hard for the working guys — fishing boat captains to be specific — to be anything but corrupt when the big evil guy that controlled so many boats (Carlos Rafael) also controlled the ability of so many captains to make a living.

“It’s a case of what choice did they have?” asked Kendall in a heart-wrenching Standard-Times story Saturday morning.

As a working-class stiff who has worked for "the man" all my life, I can very much identify.

Mayor Jon Mitchell pointed out in the Saturday story that prosecutors and regulatory authorities endanger the people’s confidence when they overreach. They risk bringing down the whole system when they crack down on too many working men and women who get swept up by a guy like Carlos Rafael. “I can tell you that the government undermines its credibility when it tries to sweep everyone into its drag net,” said Mitchell, who worked in Boston for years as an assistant U.S. attorney.

John Bullard is very much not a working class guy. A good man, an honest man, he is nevertheless the scion of one of the most exploitative industries that American commerce has ever known: 19th century whaling.

That is the brutal truth in New Bedford and it is better that we own it once and for all now than condemn ourselves to be haunted by its long echos for ever more decades.

Whaling made New Bedford rich, it built the mansions on County Street and it financed the construction of the great textile mills that made the city even richer in the early 20th century. But it was all built on the very low wages of Portuguese and Cape Verdean sailors who were paid crumbs and often worked to death or desertion. That is where John Bullard’s family fortune came from. And it was fortunes like theirs that later went on to exploit the generations of French Canadian, Madeiran and Newfoundland Irish mill workers who wore their fingers to the bone on the filmy looms in the roaring dusty factory corridors that financed the top-of-the-hill gardens and grandchildren who got to build “shanties” so they could study the transcendentalists.

Now Bullard — who unlike the captains has never had to worry about where his next pay check is coming from — sits in judgment. He’s a hometown guy who became a regulator with the hated federal agency that monitors the undeniable dishonesty on the New Bedford waterfront. It is Bullard who opines on the Portuguese and Irish-American captains who NOAA says helped Carlos Rafael falsify fishing records, making the unscrupulous Azorean immigrant heinously rich and endangering the fishing stock of the North Atlantic for future generations. And yes it’s true the captains also made a good living doing it. And yes it’s true that Bullard is sincerely trying to protect a greatly endangered ocean that once gone could be gone for good.

It all reminds me of the Shakespearean drama going on in Washington as I write. A wide swath of federal bureaucrats — the alt-Right’s much derided “Deep State” — seems engaged in a determined attempt to bring down the most corrupt, amoral man ever to hold the presidency. Robert Mueller’s team seems to be slowly and methodically prosecuting the lower-level sins of everyone from Donald Trump’s hangers-on to his national security advisor to his onetime campaign manager to his very family.

The battle for the soul of New Bedford seems to me right now very much like the battle for the soul of this country.

What started out as two fishing boat captains helping Rafael is now 20 captains helping out in the civil lawsuit. What started out as 35 violations of federal fishery laws is now 88 violations. And what started out as just short of $1 million in monetary penalties for Rafael is now some $3.3 million. The federal regulators are seeking to revoke the very operator permits from 17 of the captains.

What is going on here?

Do the regulators want to bankrupt the captains who went along to get along? Is that fair? It’s true that there were honest boat captains and fishermen who would not make the deal with Raphael. It seems like there should be some price for those who did wrong. But bankruptcy and career ending unemployment?

Do the regulators want to flip the captains against Rafael, gather more evidence against him so that they can take more of his boats?

The new federal action is seeking to revoke 42 of the Codfather’s fishing permits. If they do that, it might go a long way toward getting Raphael out of the New Bedford fishery for good. One of the big fears is that Rafael will continue making money as his remaining fishing boats go back to sea — either through his selling the boats or somehow having them fish when they are owned by other family members.

The rest of the New Bedford waterfront is crying desperately that the city needs to get back to fishing. And they’re absolutely right, New Bedford has got to get back to groundfishing. And selling fish. And shipping fish. And processing it and outfitting and repairing the boats that pursue it.

But it seems that the prosecutors, as in the case of President Trump, were never through with Carlos Rafael’s abuse of the fishery. It seems that this long plan to go after him for the full scope of his thievery, the full scope of his corrupting of this city, has always been the plan.

And while that may be understandable, it’s not understandable that it may also bring down New Bedford’ great and mighty fishery in the meantime.

Will that be justice? I don’t think so. It doesn’t really seem so at all.

But as Shakespeare said, when wrongdoing becomes this widespread, “All are punished! All are punished!”

Jack Spillane is the Sunday and editorial page of The Standard-Times and SouthCoastToday.