A chemical tanker crewman who was detained in South Carolina for months under a controversial material witness law says the U.S. government tried to place him into a homeless shelter and is putting his family at health and financial risk by refusing to let him return to his native Greece.
Prosecutors, however, say Greece’s weak extradition laws give them no choice but to make sure the maritime worker doesn’t leave the state until his trial, which has not been scheduled.
Panagiotis Koutoukakis faces two felony charges and up to 25 years in prison for his alleged role in a conspiracy to falsify records and cover up illegal pollution discharges while the tanker Green Sky was at sea. The falsified records were discovered last year while the tanker was docked at the Port of Charleston, according to court documents.
Koutoukakis and four other defendants are to be arraigned on the charges next week in Charleston. On Thursday, a federal judge will hear Koutoukakis’ request to rejoin his family overseas as long as he promises to return to the U.S. for future court dates.
That’s something Christopher Hale, a lawyer with the U.S. Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section, adamantly opposes. A magistrate judge previously denied a similar request by Koutoukakis last month.
Hale, in court documents, said he “has some sympathy” with Koutoukakis’ plight, but does not want to return his passport because “once he goes back to Greece, there is no legal way to reasonably assure the appearance of Mr. Koutoukakis.” Hale declined to comment further Monday.
Federal officials first took Koutoukakis into custody Jan. 14 when he was working on another ship docked in Savannah. Koutoukakis was brought back to Charleston, where he was declared a material witness to a crime, forced to surrender his passport and told he could not leave South Carolina.
That kind of detention without formal charges — a violation of the Fourth Amendment, according to some rights groups — is among the criticisms leveled against the material witness law. The U.S. government has used the law numerous times in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to hold people without charges for indefinite periods of time.
In Koutoukakis’ case, the federal government was providing a monthly stipend to cover his housing and expenses. Court records do not state how much was being paid. Those payments ended June 16, when Koutoukakis was formally charged with the felonies, released on an unsecured $25,000 bond and told not to leave the state.
In a letter to his public defender — translated from Greek to English in court papers — Koutoukakis said he is unable to work because he has no U.S. documentation, unable to support his family back home and unable to speak English. As a result, he added, U.S. officials are putting his and his family’s health and well-being at risk.
Koutoukakis said in the letter that he was told by court officials to live in a homeless shelter and that a woman “brought me canned food, vouchers for McDonald’s and a list of several places to eat (at a) soup kitchen.”
The Greek consulate in Atlanta declined to help Koutoukakis with his living expenses but said it would help him return to Greece if the court gives him permission. Koutoukakis, in his letter, asked for help in getting the ship’s owner to pay him $2,500 a month for hotel expenses and 3,500 euros per month for living expenses.
Cody Groeber, a public defender representing Koutoukakis, said in court documents that his client “does not have family here, nor does he have anyone to rely upon for shelter or food.” Groeber declined to comment when reached Monday by The Post and Courier. He would not disclose where Koutoukakis is living.
“This has created a dire situation for his health and safety,” Groeber stated in court documents, adding that Koutoukakis “is fearful and anxious about this turn of events.”
Hale said in court documents that Koutoukakis could be doing more to help himself, adding that Koutoukakis has “made no showing as to any other efforts to solicit support from family members, trade organizations, religious institutions or nongovernmental organizations” in the U.S. or overseas.
“With such support, he could perhaps be more comfortable during his release in the Charleston area,” Hale stated, adding that it would be a “logistical nightmare” to bring Koutoukakis back to the U.S. for trial if he is allowed to go to a country where his extradition would be illegal.
Koutoukakis was the chief engineer on the Green Sky at the time the alleged pollution violations occurred. An affidavit filed in federal court alleges Koutoukakis ordered crew members to bypass the ship’s oil and water separator and dump oily waste overboard six times from May 2015 through July 2015. Koutoukakis then failed to record the discharges as required by law in the ship’s oil record book.
Others charged in the case include: Nikolaos Bounovas, the ship’s second assistant engineer; Herbert Julian, chief engineer after Koutoukakis left the vessel; Aegean Shipping Management, the operator of the Green Sky; and ship owner Aegeansun Gamma Inc.
Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_