Former White Pass railroad executive enters plea, averting third trial

Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A former executive with the White Pass and Yukon Railroad on Wednesday entered a guilty plea to one misdemeanor count in U.S. District Court in connection with a 1994 oil spill by the railroad near Skagway.

Paul Taylor pleaded guilty to negligent discharge of oil and was sentenced to three years of probation and 480 hours of community service by Judge H. Russel Holland. In exchange, the government agreed to dismiss a pending indictment on charges Taylor made false statements in connection with the spill.

While Holland accepted the plea agreement, he was clearly not happy with it, particularly with the fact that Taylor, the former president of the railroad, wouldn't do any prison time.

''This result is one of the least satisfying resolutions I've seen of a criminal case in quite a while,'' Holland said. ''You got a walk on something and it shouldn't have happened, but that's where we are. You were the responsible officer for the company and I think you blew it bad.''

But Taylor's attorney, Tim Petumenos, noted Taylor was never convicted of any of the much more serious charges he originally faced, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice and failure to report an oil spill.

''I think the way this case ended up is a proper resolution,'' Petumenos said. ''It's certainly fair to say Mr. Taylor fought these charges every inch of the way.''

Railroad supervisor Edward Hanousek was sentenced to jail time for his involvement with the spill. He was convicted in 1996 and sentenced to six months in prison and six months in a halfway house. His appeals to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court and U.S. Supreme Court were turned down.

The spill occurred Oct. 1, 1994, about six miles from Skagway when a railroad-owned oil pipeline was damaged by a backhoe during an excavation project. Up to 1,500 gallons of heating oil spilled into the Skagway River.

Taylor reached an agreement with federal prosecutors two days before jury selection was to begin for his third trial in the case.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Charlie Brown said the government agreed to Taylor's plea because witnesses' recollection of events have faded in the seven years since the spill, making it difficult to ensure a conviction. He also cited the expense of another trial.

Taylor had been convicted in 1996 of two felony counts of lying to government officials and was acquitted of seven other counts. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed his conviction last August, saying the judge had allowed inadmissible evidence.

A second trial in June ended in a mistrial when the jury deadlocked.

Taylor's guilty plea Wednesday to a charge of negligent discharge of oil was related to a telephone conversation he had with Coast Guard officials in Juneau two days after the spill.

In that conversation, Taylor said he didn't think there was anything for them to see at the spill site and said there was no reason for them to come to Skagway. That conversation could have had the effect of delaying the Coast Guard's arrival by several hours, Petumenos said. When the Coast Guard arrived it supervised the digging of a ditch to collect the oil and keep it from flowing into the river.

Taylor told the court he was careless in his conversation with the Coast Guard. He said his assessment of the situation was based on earlier visits to the site.

''I had been to the site twice. I saw a minor spill,'' Taylor said. He told Holland he had never had any prior trouble with the law.

''This is the only problem I've ever had. The only thing that's even been close to a problem,'' Taylor said.

The agreement Taylor reached with the government did not initially include community service. Holland asked if there was any reason why he should not require community service. Petumenos suggested 100 hours before Holland decided on 480 hours.

Taylor told Holland he could offer his services as an engineer to the City of Skagway.

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