Christopher Keays, a native of Scotland, was 27 years old and fresh out of the maritime academy in the summer of 2013 when he got “the chance of a lifetime” to work on a ship as a junior engineer with the Caribbean Princess. Today he is a millionaire.
A federal judge in Miami awarded Keays $1 million Wednesday for blowing the whistle on the Princess Cruise Lines’ illegal dumping of oily waste into the ocean.
As part of a plea agreement, U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz also ordered the company to pay a $40 million penalty—the largest ever levied for crimes involving deliberate vessel pollution, according to the Department of Justice.
The cruise lines also falsified logs, dismantled evidence and instructed crew members to lie to investigators, according to court documents, including the cruise lines’ admissions to the court in its plea memo in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
The plea deal was signed by Mona Ehrenreich, general counsel to Holland America Group, which includes Princess Cruise Lines. Ehrenreich participated in Wednesday’s sentencing by telephone. The company was represented by outside counsel David Kelley in New York and Bradley Bondi in Washington, both of Cahill Gordon & Reindel.
Seitz also placed the cruise lines on five years probation under a corporate monitor. Under terms of the plea deal, the company must make extensive environmental and compliance reforms throughout its ships.
For the monitor role, the government chose Steven Solow, a partner at the firm Katten Muchin Rosenman and co-head of its environmental and workplace safety practice group as well as of its white-collar, investigations and compliance practice in Washington, D.C. Before joining Katten, Solow served in the late 1990s as the chief of the environmental crimes section at DOJ.
Prosecutors had asked the court to make the whistleblower award to Keays, which was the most that could be given under the law, the U.S. Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships. The government’s plea memo states, “It is undisputed that the information and evidence provided by Mr. Keays was the impetus for the criminal investigation and that it resulted in the conviction of the defendant.”
According to court documents, Keays discovered and videotaped a “magic pipe” that was illegally discharging oily waste water while clean sea water was being pumped overboard through another mechanism in order to fool the computer and cover up the illegal act.
“His concern and fear throughout the video recordings is palpable,” according to the government’s memo. Keays walked off the ship at the next port, in Southampton, England, and shared his evidence with the U.K.’s Coast Guard and Maritime Agency.
Meanwhile the ship sailed for the U.S., where the Maritime Agency had shared with the U.S. Coast Guard the information received from Keays.
A U.S. investigation showed the illegal discharging was a widespread practice on numerous Princess Cruise Lines’ ships over a period of years.
The memo discusses the difficulties facing a crew member who blows the whistle on his ship. “The decision to step forward, however, must be weighed against the likelihood that the cooperating crew member will forever be barred from working in the marine shipping industry and may be subject to physical harm and abuse,” federal prosecutors wrote in the government’s sentencing memo.
Keays, in a personal note to the judge that is included in the court record, said the job was “the chance of a lifetime” for him.
“Thinking back,” he wrote in his note to the court, “I had not considered the implications of my response and that my career may be over before it barely started. The disregard for lawful practice and pollution of the sea without remorse left me with a genuine sadness, that I was at the beginning of my career in an industry so irresponsible.”
He continued: “My actions were an automatic response to wrong, when so many others clearly turned a blind eye. I genuinely hope that this will be a wakeup call for the industry, that my actions will be replicated and empower those with knowledge of these practices to do the right thing.”
Keays’s letter does not ask for a reward.