Man Sues, Claiming Fisheries Department Smeared Him -- Fisherman Calls Charges Against Him Political

From the moment he learned he faced felony charges for allegedly lying about where he'd caught fish, commercial fisherman and lobbyist Steve Arbaugh thought the accusations were political.

In fact, he gave a TV reporter - the first person to inform him he'd been charged - a statement that now makes him wince.

``Salman Rushdie has the ayatollah,'' he recalled saying. ``I've got the Department of Fisheries.''

The charges filed last year against Arbaugh and his friend Frank Bjazevich were later dismissed by a Snohomish County Superior Court judge. But, for Arbaugh, that wasn't enough. Now he's out to prove he was smeared.

Arbaugh and Bjazevich, both of Everett, filed a claim against the state and, because they received no response in the allotted time, filed a lawsuit today. They claim that the state Department of Fisheries and several of its employees set out to discredit them and the Puget Sound Gillnetters Association, a 600-member commercial fishing organization of which Arbaugh is president.

The two men say the department violated their civil rights and injured their reputations by intentionally or recklessly filing charges two years after the alleged violation, but during the same period that Arbaugh was heavily involved in lobbying against legislation the Fisheries Department supported.

``They were playing it up like I was John Dillinger in fisheries,'' Arbaugh said recently as he prepared the Sundance,, his one-man gill net boat, for another fishing day. ``I went from obscurity to just about `America's Most Wanted.'''

The two men are asking for $1 million in punitive damages as well as other unspecified damages to be proved at time of trial.

Evan Jacoby, an attorney for the Fisheries Department, declined to answer questions about the case because it is in litigation.

``We did an investigation, and we presented the case to prosecutors. And the prosecutors filed charges,'' he said. ``Once the case is given to prosecutors, we have no idea when they're going to file charges.''

Jacoby wouldn't even say whether Arbaugh and his attorneys are correct in saying that Arbaugh and Bjazevich are the only fishermen ever charged with a felony for fishing in a closed area or for otherwise falsifying information on tickets regarding the amount, weight and location of each catch.

In court papers, however, Snohomish County prosecutors named only one other case where similar felony charges were filed and one where charges were considered.

The day Arbaugh was charged with intentionally falsifying a ticket in March 1989, several TV stations and newspapers carried the story.

He got the call from the first reporter shortly after he'd returned home from lobbying against a bill that, if passed, Arbaugh believed would have sunk the non-Native American commercial fishing in the state.

The timing of the charge, he said, made it seem all the more suspicious.

But when Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Joseph Thibodeau dismissed the case last December, publicity was sparce.

Arbaugh, a frequent critic of the Fisheries Department, considerers his lawsuit a way to set the record straight.

``I see this (lawsuit) as very important,'' he said. ``Then no one can say `Yeah, we got off on a technicality.'''

Thibodeau ruled the state had no evidence to prove Arbaugh and Bjazevich had fished in an area closed to non-Native American commercial fishermen on Sept. 21, 1987, while allegedly reporting they fished Sept. 22 in an open area.

A third defendant, John Orlando, the man who bought the fish and filled out most of the tickets in question, earlier pleaded guilty to giving false or misleading information, a gross misdemeanor.

Joan Cavagnaro, the Snohomish County deputy prosecutor assigned the case, said she has tried to forget it. She said the case had several problems when she had several problems when she inherited it from another prosecutor, including insufficient time to do the investigation she wanted to do. Given the evidence available, she said she understood Thibodeau's decision to dismiss the charges. But she said she doesn't know how Arbaugh and Bjazevich can accuse the Fisheries Department of malicious prosecution when her office made the decision on the charges.

As far as she's concerned, there was no political motivation at all.

``I didn't know who these people were. I don't fish. I don't pay attention,'' Cavagnaro said. ``It definitely was not a high priority case or anything.''

But Arbaugh's attorney, Jeffery Campiche, said the Fisheries Department, not prosecutors, decided to investigate Arbaugh and Bjazevich in the first place. And the Fisheries Department, he said, mentioned felony charges but failed to produce enough evidence to support them.

He also suspects that the Fisheries Department tipped the media to the story, because he said the TV stations otherwise probably wouldn't have picked up a single felony charge against a fairly obscure lobbyist.

``The prosecutors were not informed what was up,'' Campiche said. ``They were snookered.''

Cavagnaro, however, said the case looked, smelled and tasted like fraud - which made it felony material.

Arbaugh, 38, said some legislators seemed to keep their distance after the charges were filed, but he's not sure how much his credibility suffered. And he said he may not ever really know.

``I wondered: Would I talk to someone who'd just had that type of publicity?'' he said.

He did know that some people in his own organization thought he was guilty, and he said that really hurt.

Randy Ray, a lobbyist who worked alongside Arbaugh to successfully defeat the ``Sport Preference Bill'' in the 1989 session, said he didn't see any fallout from the charges. He said most legislators assume a person is innocent until proven guilty.

Sen. Jack Metcalf, R-Langley, also a critic of the Fisheries Department, said he also didn't believe the charges had much effect but for different reasons.

``Everybody I talked to believed it (the case) was bogus.'' he said.

To Arbaugh, however, the case is also a matter of principle.

``If a state agency can pick on you because you disagree with them,'' he asked. ``how many people will want to challenge a state agency?''