Ocean City Today

White Marlin Open anglers land in MD District Court

By Brian Gilliland | Dec 28, 2017
Photo by: JJ Roth Phil Heasley and the crew of the Kallianassa stand with his white marlin following the weigh-in of the fish, which led to it being announced the winner of the tournament and worth in excess of $2 million. However, members of the Kallianassa crew failed subsequent polygraph tests as provided for under tournament rules, leading to the tournament rescinding the prize from Heasley. The matter has been in the courts ever since.

(Dec. 29, 2017) Though this year’s edition of Ocean City’s White Marlin Open didn’t pass without a measure of controversy itself, last year’s tournament results were still working their way through the appeals system.

In June, District Judge Richard Bennett ruled in favor of the White Marlin Open in the ongoing lawsuit between the tournament and last year’s presumed winner of more than $2.8 million in prize money, finding the tournament complied with its obligations and the angler, Philip Heasley, failed to satisfy tournament rules.

This order made no determination on what would happen to the prize money, which would come later.

According to tournament rules, all anglers winning more than $50,000 in prize money, as well as any crewmember registered to the vessel where the winning fish was landed, may be required to take and pass a polygraph test. The polygraph provision of the rules has been in place since at least 2004.

Heasley landed a 76.5-pound white marlin for what appeared to be the winning catch last year, but he and three other people were required to take the test. Three passed, but Heasley did not, according to court documents.

The tournament then allowed Heasley and the crew to take additional polygraph tests to qualify for the prize money, which resulted in the same determination.

The tournament ruled to withhold the prize money and Heasley sued.

“Ultimately, this court concludes that Mr. Heasley’s arguments are without merit,” the judge declared.

Separate from the polygraph readings, the court also found the Heasley and his crew aboard his boat, Kallianassa, violated tournament rules by deploying fishing lines prior to the official 8:30 a.m. start on Aug. 9, 2016.

According to the logs and the court’s findings of fact, the ship slowed to a trolling speed of about 7 knots starting at 8:04 a.m., and the court concluded that was well before the 8:30 a.m. start.

Neither side of the case disputed that the fish Heasley landed was on board the vessel before 8:58:47 a.m.

However, the court noticed significant differences in the testimonies given by each crewmember in four areas: how long it took to deploy all of the ship’s fishing lines, how long it took to hook the white marlin, how long Heasley fought the fish and how long it took to gaff and boat the fish.

According to the court’s opinion, virtually none of the accounts given by captain, crew or angler agreed with each other, and most of them made it impossible for the fish to be boated by the agreed-upon time of 8:58 a.m.

It took another month for a prize-money distribution plan to be approved by the judge.

The plan made Richard Kosztyu of Hamilton, New Jersey the winner of more than $2 million for his 236-pound tuna. Jim Conway of Glen Burnie, Maryland would get about $230,000 for his 790-pound blue marlin. Also bringing home six figures was Mark Hutchison of Cordova, Maryland, with about $123,000 for his 233-pound tuna. Ten other anglers were also compensated in the plan.

Though Heasley had 30 days to file an appeal, it only took him until early August to dispute the decision.

“We filed today’s appeal because the District Court ruling last month was fundamentally wrong. It became clear that the judge based much of his ruling on a deeply flawed assumption, and discarded facts, evidence and eyewitness testimony that contradicted it,” Heasley said in a press release. “The Kallianassa crew and I caught the tournament’s only qualifying white marlin fairly, legally and without violating any tournament rules.”

The appeal will focus on disputing two of the court’s decisions, according to a release issued by Harry-Jacques Pierre, associate vice president of Rasky Partners a public relations and lobbying firm.

Heasley disputes the court’s finding that the Kallianassa had her lines in the water prior to the 8:30 a.m. official start time, and the validity of polygraph tests as admissible evidence.

A few days later, Heasley’s lawyers made a two-pronged request of the court. First, it was successfully argued that the decision made by Judge Richard Bennett on the outcome and payout plan of the previous case be held off until the appeal is complete, which is a relatively standard occurrence during an appeal.

Second, Heasley’s team argued against the payment of a supersedeas bond, which can be used to ensure an appeal is not frivolous or meant to delay payment.

As appeals can go on for years, the bond payment by the loser of the initial case is required to show the proceedings are entered into in good faith.

Judge Bennett ordered Heasley to pay almost $282,000, or about 10 percent of the total winnings, within two weeks of the decision.

Heasley’s counsel argued that since the prize money is currently in an interest-bearing account, if he should lose the appeal, the other parties would sufficiently benefit from the new balance.

However, the court noted that the rate paid on the account is significantly lower than interest rates the other anglers could be earning on their shares of the prize money, and so ordered the supersedeas bond to cover the disparity.

These issues are still making their way through the courts, with motions and countermotions on both sides.

Polygraph tests were also ordered on the winners this year, but with strikingly different results and the announced winners keeping their prize money.

Tournament founder Jim Motsko said one angler did not pass the initial exam following Ocean City’s largest annual fishing tournament, which ended on Aug. 11.

That angler has the right to an additional exam, selecting one of three vendors provided by the tournament, which was taken and passed, Motsko said.

A separate test on another participant came up inconclusive, Motsko said. Two others aboard the second unidentified vessel submitted to examination and passed the testing, and an additional test eventually cleared the initial interviewee.

The crew of the Kallianassa was not going to let the opportunity to comment on the process to pass.

Via the Kallianassa’s Facebook page, an official statement issued by unknown authors addressed the news of the new round of testing in late August. The Facebook page also contains several statements by Heasley, his lawyer Christopher Sullivan and posts about the efficacy of polygraphs.

“The Kallianassa doesn’t delight at anyone’s misfortune … As we’ve learned throughout our yearlong involvement, polygraphs are unreliable – even when conducted to standards the polygraph examiners set for themselves,” the statement begins. “We had hoped that the White Marlin Open would have learned this lesson as well and eliminated polygraphs from its competition. Polygraphs have no place in our society, be it in government hiring or in fishing.”

The Kallianassa statement ends with a promise to monitor the results “with intense scrutiny” and the suggestion that “you don’t win a contest by winning a polygraph — or a court case. You win it by catching a fish fairly.”

As part of the tournament’s response, the organizers countered the criticism with barbs of their own.

“The White Marlin Open simply notes that his assertions were rejected by the honorable Richard J. Bennett … after patiently listening to trial testimony for eight days. Moreover … the White Marlin Open Directors are not in need of any advice Mr. Heasley or his attorneys about how to run the tournament.”

The matter of the 2017 tournament would be finalized in late October.

The additional rounds of polygraph testing for White Marlin Open winners took longer than expected, but resulted in no changes to the winners, who received $4.97 million in prize money.

The top winner of this year’s tournament was Glen Frost of Stevensville, Maryland, who took home the more than $1.6 million for his 95.5-pound white, landed on the final day of fishing this year.

Motsko said with the release of the statement reinforcing the announced results, he considers the 2017 tournament over.

“We’re working on next year’s tournament already,” he said.

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