Former Orange County Sheriff's Department Deputy Phillip Romero, 39, pleaded guilty today to a misdemeanor account of obstructing an officer after he lied to protect a friend from being cited by the California Department of Fish and Game for illegal lobster poaching. Romero had falsely claimed that co-defendant Deputy William Robb, an off-duty officer, was a confidential informant.
Under the plea agreement, Romero was sentenced to 100 hours of community service, 18 months of probation, and ordered to pay $1,700 in restitution, fines, and donations to victim and witness services and the California Department of Fish and Game Preservation Fund. He was also ordered to write an apology letter to the Department of Fish and Game. Romero could have faced a year in prison if convicted at trial.
"It was a solid case for us and I anticipated it would be a plea and not go to trial," Deputy District Attorney Rebecca Olivieri said. "It's embarrassing enough being charged, but once Romero was let go from the sheriff's office ... it was just a matter of resolving it and putting it behind him."
Co-defendant Robb is charged with misdemeanor counts of possessing an excessive number of spiny lobsters and possessing undersized spiny lobsters. If convicted at trial, he faces a maximum sentence of one year in jail. Olivieri said Robb has also been offered a plea deal and is considering it. Robb's pre-trial hearing is scheduled for Dec. 17. in Santa Ana.
According to the Orange County Sheriff's Department, on Nov. 18, 2008, Robb, off-duty and not in uniform, pulled up to a launch ramp on a fishing vessel in Dana Point after fishing for lobsters with two other off-duty officers.
Robb is accused of possessing a bucket with 13 lobsters, higher than the amount legally permitted and below the legally permitted size. The law requires that no more than seven lobsters may be caught per person and that each lobster must measure three-and-a-quarter inches or more in length.
As Fish & Game Warden Justin Sandvig spoke with Robb, Deputy Romero, who was on duty, arrived in uniform in the parking lot and asked to speak with the warden alone. After learning that Sandvig had not yet identified Robb, his friend, Romero made up a story that Robb was a confidential informant for the Orange County Sheriff's Department and, according to Olivieri, Romero asked the warden not to blow Robb's "cover."
Sandvig believed Romero and allowed him to handle the situation with Robb. After confirming that the other two deputies on the boat were not in possession of any illegal lobsters, Sandvig allowed them to leave. Olivieri said there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute the other two deputies.
Sandvig followed up with Romero in the following days, attempting to obtain Robb's name for his report and to issue a citation. Romero continued to claim Robb was a confidential informant and refused to provide his name.
On Dec. 8, 2008, Warden Sandvig learned the identity of Robb and the circumstances surrounding the incident. Sandvig submitted a report to the Orange County District Attorney's Office requesting the case be investigated and criminal charges be brought against the defendants in this case.
Sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino did not immediately know the employment status of Robb or the other two unnamed deputies.
A message left with Romero's attorney, Paul Meyer, was not immediately returned.
This story incorporates information from KPCC wire services.