Two Hall of Famers return to town
Carlos Rafael and John George are back on Southcoast.
How are we to greet them?
Are they like the prodigal son in the Bible? Should we react like the generous, forgiving father and welcome them with open arms?
Rafael, it is clear, intends to build a real estate empire with some of the millions he made during the years he falsified fishing records and attempted to smuggle money to Portugal.
George so far has only asked to re-open his produce stand and ice cream store. But his bucolic farm on Slocum Road in Dartmouth spreads out beyond the stand with magnificent vistas. From the easy Select Board reception his license application received last summer, he may be back for more business.
“Thank you very much, I appreciate it,” he told the board of the town he disgraced. “Stay healthy everybody, stay safe.”
Carlos Rafael no longer owns any of the fishing boats in New Bedford harbor. [ Jack Spillane ]
Rafael has hired one of the most connected and respected lawyers in town to represent him, John Markey Jr. Markey has framed Rafael and his children’s purchases as investments in the future of New Bedford rather than just letting his dough compound interest on Wall Street. And if it was Markey himself investing the money, you might actually believe that.
But Carlos, as everyone calls him -- forget that ‘Codfather’ stuff that Rafael crafted for his own branding -- does not himself sound remotely contrite.
Here’s what he told Dartmouth Week when he announced he was planning to restore the Hawthorne Country Club to its former “glory,”
“Actually, the government did me a favor by putting me out… I ended up with a bucketload of money out of the deal and instead of having the money in the bank, I’m investing it.
There were no “m-----f---” quotes in the article so maybe Carlos did at least some reforming during his 30 months in prison.
The sign on the gate at Dartmouth’s Hawthorne Country Club. The club has been purchased by members of Carlos Rafael’s family. Rafael has said they plan to renovate the clubhouse. [ Jack Spillane ]
Rafael and his family a month ago were the winning bidders on the historic Merchants National Bank building in downtown New Bedford. It is a big part of New Bedford’s historic legacy, a spot where Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass once lectured when it was Liberty Hall and the New Bedford lyceum series was held.
The lyceum had a mission for the “improvement of its members in useful knowledge and the advancement of popular education,” according to local historian Arthur Motta. Herman Melville and Charles Dickens also spoke at the forum, as did many abolitionists. You might say this locale has come down a ways with the latest news.
It’s astonishing in some ways how little Rafael has paid for his racket. He served 30 months in federal prison and was fined $3 million but he walked away with much more.
Judge William Young was worried about the constitutionality of a big forfeit of Rafael’s assets, saying that government seizures must be in proportion to a crime. No one, after all, knows whether they caught Rafael on all the fish he mislabeled and made money on.
Young settled on seizing four Rafael boats and 34 lucrative fishing permits. Carlos got to sell the biggest chunk of his remaining groundfish vessels, 12 of them and 27 permits, to Blue Harvest fisheries. Six scallopers went to Quinn Fisheries for about $40 million.
The boat sale money is the cash Carlos is using to enter the Greater New Bedford real estate market.
John George’s ice cream stand at his farm on Slocum Road in Dartmouth. [ Jack Spillane ]
Carlos’ lawyers told the federal court that he ran his fish mislabeling scheme -- which has set back the whole movement to accurately monitor groundfish stock in the North Atlantic -- as necessary to help his employees with their mortgages, car payments and student loans.
Young didn’t buy any of that. “It was not stupid. This was corrupt. This was a corrupt course of action from start to finish, designed to benefit you. To line your pockets,” he said at the sentencing.
Young also seemed to allude to the complicity of the New Bedford waterfront in Carlos’ way of doing business. The corrupting of boat captains was raised in the federal indictments and in a recent civil suit, two employees of BASE seafood auction alleged that outfit was also complicit in Rafael’s mislabeling of fish.
“I’m rather surprised it’s taken so long to bring Mr. Rafael before the court,” said Judge Young at the sentencing.
The Rafael family -- which includes his daughter Stephanie DeMello and son-in-law Jeff Hathaway -- got the Merchants Bank with an auction bid of $770,00 and almost immediately put it on the market for almost $1.9 million. That’s a nice flip if they can get anywhere near that amount but anyone doing business with Carlos’ family would, of course, need to be careful.
Unlike Carlos, John George did not plead guilty when the federal government charged him with conspiracy and embezzlement from the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority. His defense was that he was basically doing what everybody else does after former U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office said he stole more than a half million dollars from the struggling bus operation and diverted all kinds of goods and services to John George Farms.
After being convicted, George lied about his assets when his sentence included a $1.3 million fine and an order to restore almost $689,000 to the bus service.
He claimed he only had about $28,000 in cash but the government later found almost $2.3 million in bills rolled up in wads in safe deposit boxes at local banks in New Bedford and Fairhaven.
All the while George ran the embezzlement scheme, SRTA was not able to run remotely adequate bus service for the thousands of low-income people who depend on it in New Bedford and Fall River. Ortiz said that while occupying a position of power and trust and the community, “worst of all, he condemned the communities of New Bedford and Fall River to sub-standard public transportation and, at times, none at all in the case of many disabled passengers.”
The SRTA bus terminal in downtown New Bedford where John George’s company had the bus contract. [ Jack Spillane ]
George served 70 months for his wrongdoing, which if you compare it to Rafael’s seems like a lot but Rafael pleaded out and George did not until they finally caught him with the rolled-up cash.
A big test of John George’s future plans will relate to what happens to the farm. The town has talked about preserving the scenic land as open space but George and his family may now be in a position where they need to sell it off as a subdivision.
It’s important that Greater New Bedford, which after decades of decline is on the cusp of a better economy and quality of life than in generations, protect its image.
If New Bedford and Dartmouth should become known as the land where Carlos Rafael rules real estate and John George has been welcomed back as a respected town businessman, it will hurt that image.
The two men have served their time and paid the debt that the rule of law exacted from them. Some say they have also done good things in the region. That’s something all of us will have to weigh -- do we buy the argument that any good deeds come near to canceling out the devastation they wrought.
They have the right to be in business. But anyone who does business with them, including local government, should be aware of just who they are dealing with.