Ferry steward charged with dodging tobacco tax

Troopers: Employee cost state $23,000

Posted: Tuesday, April 25, 2000

The chief steward of the state ferry Columbia faces charges of abusing his official shipboard status by the personal purchase of cigarettes and alcohol, supposedly for the use at a non-existent crew bar.

Officials said his actions cost the state almost $23,000 in taxes and penalties.

Reynaldo Pingul, 55, of Ketchikan, was arraigned last week before Judge Peter Froehlich in Juneau District Court. He participated telephonically from Ketchikan with his lawyer, Henry C. Keene Jr.

Pingul pleaded innocent and asked to be allowed to travel for work while awaiting trial. District Attorney Richard Svobodny had no objections.

Pingul is charged with one felony count of failure to pay cigarette taxes stemming from his actions on the Columbia between July 1998 and March 2000.

He is additionally charged with eight misdemeanor counts of official misconduct. The charging documents state that ``in his official capacity as a public servant he placed personal orders ... which constituted an unauthorized exercise of his official function as chief steward on the M/V Columbia, knowing that such an act was unauthorized'' by the Alaska Marine Highway System.

``By avoiding all taxes, the defendant reaped a windfall for himself and others that shared in his tobacco and alcohol operation,'' trooper Roger Maynard of Ketchikan wrote in an affidavit, ``and deprived the state of Alaska of $22,702.74 in taxes and penalties.''

Maynard did not know of any other ferry stewards who had taken advantage of their position. ``As far as I know, this is the first case of its kind,'' Maynard said in an interview.

Pingul began placing orders for the ferry's ``crew bar'' in July 1998 with Fairn & Swanson, a Seattle supplier. But the Columbia does not have a crew bar because it is against marine highway policy for crew members to use or possess intoxicating beverages while on AMHS vessels or on duty.

In September 1999, Fairn & Swanson's legal compliance officer became suspicious about Pingul's orders -- paid for in cash and made separately from orders to the Columbia's regular account. Trooper Maynard obtained a search warrant and on Sept. 19, 1999, found Pingul in possession of $569 worth of alcohol. Pingul admitted to Maynard that he had placed a total of nine orders from the ship's phone over a period of two years, charging documents said.

Pingul was hired by the ferry system on April 19, 1997. He has no previous criminal record in Alaska. Defense attorney Keene asked for a continuance for 30 days so another attorney could take over the case. A preliminary hearing has been set for May 22 in Juneau, Keene said.

At that time, the trial date will be set, Keene said.

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