Trial date set for Cosco Busan pilot

April 4, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
A May trial date was set today in federal court in San Francisco for the pilot of the container ship that struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in November, spilling nearly 54,000 gallons of oil into the bay.

John Cota, 60, was piloting the 900-foot Cosco Busan when it hit a protective fender at the base of the Bay Bridge in heavy fog on the morning of Nov. 7.

The spill killed thousands of birds, temporarily closed beaches throughout the Bay Area as the oil washed ashore, and damaged the local fishing industry.

Cota is facing two criminal misdemeanor charges of violating the U.S. Clean Water Act for negligently spilling oil and violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for causing the deaths of migratory birds. If convicted of both, he could face a maximum sentence of one year and six months in prison.

This morning in U.S. District Court, Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero set the trial for May 27. However, Cota's attorney, Jeff Bornstein, indicated today the possibility that a settlement with prosecutors may be reached.

"We asked for a referral to a magistrate judge to talk about the possibility of resolving the case," he told reporters outside the courtroom.

Bornstein also said that Cota, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, is being unfairly scapegoated by prosecutors and that the U.S. Coast Guard "could have prevented this accident."

Bornstein claimed the Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Service could have prevented the ship from leaving the Port of Oakland and also could have advised the ship of its proximity to the bridge tower.

"It they see a ship heading towards a Bay Bridge tower and they don't say anything about it, to me, that's reprehensible," said Bornstein.

Last week, Bornstein sent a letter to the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, D.C., where Cota has been subpoenaed to testify in hearings on the spill next week, indicating that Cota would likely assert his Fifth Amendment right not to testify.

Bornstein said in the letter that the filing of criminal charges against Cota by the U.S. Department of Justice has impeded the NTSB investigation.

"Unfortunately, because the DOJ has reached its own conclusions before the NTSB has finished its investigation and has focused exclusively on Captain Cota's role in this unfortunate incident, Captain Cota is therefore compelled to exercise his Constitutional rights to decline to testify at the NTSB hearing," the letter states.

The NTSB hearings are scheduled to take place Tuesday and Wednesday. Further hearings in Cota's federal case in San Francisco are scheduled for April 16 and May 5.


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