The Fall of Tom Santaguida
By Roberta Scruggs
Created Nov 12 2007 - 12:47pm
Inside a drab government storehouse in Augusta, Tom Santaguida began assembling the future he had dreamed about since he was a boy.
His excitement grew as he tried on boots, pants, a shirt. And then through an open door he saw something that brought tears to his eyes - a long row of red jackets, the distinctive jacket worn by Maine game wardens for more than 50 years.
"It blew me away," he said. "I put one on and I could have gone outside and kicked the walls of the building down. I was so psyched. It was a really proud moment for me."
That was Santaguida in 1992, speaking to me for a Maine Sunday Telegram story. He'd been a warden for only five years. I liked him and thought he'd make a positive impact on the Maine Warden Service, which even then was in disarray. But I was wrong and I knew it before he became chief warden in 2004 and certainly before he resigned in disgrace Oct. 31.
I can't help wondering, though, how a passionate protector of fish and wildlife changed into someone who claimed he didn't notice he was poaching.
Marine patrol officers caught Santaguida with nine short lobsters during a routine, dock-side inspection on Oct. 24 in Harpswell. He had a legal catch of 54 pounds, so about 15 percent of his catch was illegal. Yet in his final message to the wardens under his supervision, he asked them to believe that was "the result of not paying close attention when measuring."
"While I emphatically state again that this incident was not intentional and involved no element of dishonesty whatsoever, I am responsible and take full personal responsibility for the situation," Santaguida wrote in an email.
In other words, he broke the law nine times by accident.
That's pretty hard to swallow, especially for commercial fishermen or conservation law officers. "How could he be so stupid?" someone asked me. "Maybe he's lost it mentally," another speculated.
Measuring is what insures the brood stock live long enough to reproduce. It's critical, but not complicated. If the body shell is shorter than 3¼ inches you can't keep it. Period. Now 46, Santaguida had fished commercially since he was a boy in New Jersey. He operates his own lobster boat. After 35 years as a commercial fisherman and 20 as a game warden, he certainly knew that most basic law.
"It's very, very simple," said Col. Joe Fessenden, who heads the Maine Marine Patrol. "I don't know how this happened. It's a mystery to me."
Clearly distressed, Fessenden said he considered Santaguida a friend and this the most difficult situation he'd faced professionally. He described Santaguida's resignation as "the worst-case scenario as far as I'm concerned."
He talked the case over with his staff, he said, but not with his boss, George LaPointe, Marine Resources commissioner, or Santaguida's boss, Danny Martin, commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, or with the governor. Circumstances, including intent, were taken into account, as they are in every case. For example, Santaguida's short lobsters were not separated from his legal catch or hidden. Ultimately, Fessenden's decision to charge Santaguida was based on the same standards and reasoning he'd employed during 32 years as a marine patrol officer.
"People make money by cheating," Fessenden said. "An honest fisherman can't compete with someone who's cheating. It's our job to make sure we remove those people from the business."
While some have praised Santaguida's resignation as "taking responsibility," others cheered his downfall as a judgment on hypocrisy. For years wardens have been accused of reveling in the "cheap pinch." Like citing a guy for not watching his ice fishing traps when he zipped back to camp for forgotten hotdog rolls or summonsing hunters for illegally transporting game because they didn't tag their deer before dragging it to the truck.
But during Santaguida's short term, the warden service moved a chilling step further. Consider how one of his officers explained their unsuccessful effort to hold guides to a "higher standard." They would have barred anyone with a criminal record - even a single misdemeanor - from being a licensed guide for three years to life. It would have been the state's highest standard for any occupation, including law enforcement, and it probably wasn't even legal.
"Our intent was to establish a standard that people need to live by," the warden said.
It also was on Santaguida's watch that unwritten "higher standards" cost Kevin Billings his license to tag game in West Paris. After the local warden told Billings' 10-year-old son - without a shred of evidence - that his dad was tagging illegally, Billings complained to warden officials, including Santaguida. When his dogged efforts finally forced them to admit his complaint was justified, they took away his state tagging contract. To get it back, they said, he'd have to swear never to say bad things about wardens again. He finally did get his license back on appeal. But Deputy Commissioner Paul Jacques insisted Billings violated IFW's unwritten rule that no tagging or licensing agent can "sass" a warden or criticize any department employee. This "higher standard," Jacques said, strictly prohibits "mean-mouthing and maligning" IFW personnel.
However, the case most associated with Santaguida involved Randy Spencer, a Grand Lake Stream guide targeted for a "sting" after someone complained about him. He was then charged with letting an undercover warden keep one extra bass (which the warden said he ate), a charge Spencer adamantly denied. Eighteen months, two trials and $25,000 in legal fees later, the judge looked at Spencer and said, "I believe him" and ruled no violation had been committed.
Santaguida was unmoved, saying, "I supported this prosecution and I would do it again and that's all I have to say." Guides, he insisted many times during the case, have to be held to a "higher standard." But when the prosecutor advanced that theory at Spencer's trial, the judge stopped him cold, saying, "No, no, no. That is not the law. The law applies equally to everybody."
Spencer is still guiding and says he's "moved on." He doesn't even want to dance on Santaguida's professional grave. "I'm not glad this happened," Spencer wrote me. "It should not be happy news for anyone. We (guides and sportsmen) need the system to work, and to work, those with the power must not abuse it."
So I just keep wondering what was going on in Tom Santaguida's mind. I can see how the zeal he showed as a young warden might lead him to jump on the "higher standards" bandwagon. But I can't see the path that led to those nine short lobsters.
I am sure, however, that Santaguida wouldn't have accepted those excuses from anyone else. Nor do I think he deserves praise for "taking responsibility."
He resigned because he had no other choice. You can't have a poacher leading the Maine Warden Service.
"All wardens in the Department know what the penalty is should the unthinkable ever occur," one game warden emailed me. "Any form of poaching is unforgivable."