White Marlin Open Controversy Settled

SNOW HILL – The
multi-party lawsuit asking the court to sort out who among the top three
finishers in the blue marlin category of last year’s White Marlin Open should
be paid the prize money was resolved this week when a Worcester County Circuit
Court judge ruled the first-place finisher deserved to his money and the
third-place winner was entitled to his prize money and the money earmarked for
the now disqualified second-place winner.

Amid confusion over
alleged failed or untimely polygraph tests, White Marlin Open organizers last September
filed a complaint of interpleader in Worcester County Circuit Court essentially
asking a judge to intercede on its behalf and assess who among the top three
winners in the 2007 tournament’s blue marlin division
should be awarded the several hundred thousand dollars in prize money at stake.
The complaint was filed after it came to light there were irregularities in two
separate polygraph tests taken by the second-place winner and the first-place
winner did not take his required polygraph test until after the tournament’s
award ceremony.

After months of legal
posturing during which the case was made more complicated by the winners of the
tuna division laying claim to all of the blue marlin category prize money,
Worcester County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Groton on Monday granted a motion
for summary judgment filed by angler Carl Hurlebaus essentially qualifying him
as the first-place winner in the blue marlin division.

Groton also granted a motion for summary judgment filed
by third-place winner Robert Belansen, disqualifying second-place winner
William Mathews and the winners of the tuna division from any claim to the blue
marlin division prize money. In the end, Groton
ruled Hurlebaus was entitled to his $378,210 in first-place money, while
Belansen was entitled to the rest of the blue marlin prize money because he was
entered in the blue marlin Level F, or winner take all, entry level.

In short, Hurlebaus was
awarded his $378,000-plus for catching the biggest blue marlin in the
tournament, while Belansen, who came in third, was awarded the rest, including
the $289,640 for second place and the $176,569 for his third-place blue marlin,
giving him a combined $466,209.

White Marlin Open
founder and organizer Jim Motsko was generally pleased with the judge’s
decision and happy to put the complicated case behind him with the 2008 version
set to begin in a little over two weeks.

“I’m glad it was
resolved the way it was,” he said. “The judge’s decision removes any doubt
about the integrity of the tournament and adds to the credibility of how the
prize money is dispersed. We’re ready to move on with another White Marlin Open
just around the corner.”

Motsko said the judge’s
decision represented what tournament officials hoped for the outcome all along.
He said the various claims by the many parties involved in the case left him
with little choice but to ask a judge to sort it out in the interest of
fairness to all involved.

“It basically went the
way we would have done it,” he said. “I’m glad the judge did what he did. We
would have liked to have resolved this ourselves without getting to this point,
but the White Marlin Open was forced to defend ourselves when these claims were
made.”

Belansen, fishing aboard
the “Beast” out of Cape May,
N.J., weighed the first
qualifying blue marlin, a 567-pounder weighed on the
tournament’s first day that briefly took the top spot in the standings. On
Tuesday, of White Marlin Open week, Mathews, fishing aboard the “Gale Force II,” weighed
a 590-pound blue marlin, jumping into first-place in the
division and knocking Belansen and the “Beast” into second.
On Thursday of the tournament, angler Carl Hurledaus, fishing aboard the
“Wireless,” hauled in a 632-pound blue marlin, taking the
tournament’s top prize in the division and knocking Mathews and Belansen down
to second and third place, respectively. While each of the winners participated
in the tournament’s award ceremony and were photographed with their ceremonial
“big checks,” the official prize money checks were not immediately awarded to
the winners. Instead, tournament officials attempted to sort out who should be
paid what after the third-place winner, Belansen, through his attorney, made a
formal complaint demanding the first- and second-place money as well because of
the alleged failure to pass the required polygraph test by the second-place
winner, Mathews, and the untimely taking of the test by the first-place winner,
Hurlebaus. Unable to reach a conclusion on their own, White
Marlin Open officials filed a
complaint for interpleader, asking the court to sort out the prize money mess.

According to court
documents, tournament officials met with Hurlebaus at his boat, the “Wireless,”
at Sunset Marina in West
Ocean City
on Saturday, Aug. 11 and told him he had missed the scheduled polygraph exam
required of anglers who win more than $50,000 in prize money in the tournament.
According to court documents, tournament officials told Hurlebaus at the time
it was no big deal and provided him with contact information for the
tournament-approved polygraph test administrator and instructed him to arrange
to take the test. Hurlebaus later took the test and passed, but the test was
taken after officials received a letter from Belansen’s attorney on Aug. 13
demanding the first- and second-place prize money.

Groton ruled on Monday the untimely nature of Hurlebaus’
polygraph test did not warrant knocking him out of the first-place prize money.
Attorney Hugh Cropper IV, who represented Hurlebaus in the case, said the judge
got it right in terms of his first-place client.

“At the end of the day,
Mr. Hurlebaus got his first-place money, which he was absolutely entitled to,”
he said. “It was ridiculous that anybody challenged that. Now he did take the
test 18 days after the end of the tournament, but there was nothing in his test
to suggest he wasn’t entitled to his prize money.”

Cropper, who had the
unique experience of representing both Hurlebaus, the first-place winner, and
Mathews, the second-place winner, in the case said he felt Mathews was
short-changed in the end result. Mathews did take the polygraph test on two
separate occasions and there were “inconsistencies” each time according to
court records, but in the end, it was an error in how he filled out his
pre-tournament paperwork that sealed his fate, according to Cropper

“I really think the
second-place winner, Mr. Matthews, really deserved to get his money,” he said.
“Nobody ever accused him of cheating and there were no allegations of him doing
anything wrong. His biggest problem was a clerical error in the way he filled
out his paperwork. He registered as a mate and not as an angler, which is why
he didn’t get his money in the end.”

Cropper acknowledged
there were problems with Mathews’ polygraph test results, but said there was
nothing in them to suggest he cheated in any way and, therefore, nothing to
preclude him from winning the prize money.

“He did fail two
separate polygraph exams, but there is a lot of dispute about that,” he said.
“Those things aren’t infallible which is why they are not admissible in court
in the first place.”

When all was said and
done, one of the big winners in the case was the White Marlin Open itself,
which avoided a protracted legal battle on the eve of this year’s tournament
and resolved the issue of the blue marlin prize money equitably without
dispersions cast on the integrity of the tournament.

“The judge basically
said two things: the White Marlin Open was within its rights to schedule the
polygraph tests when it saw fit, and the winner in the blue marlin division,
Mr. Hurlebaus, was entitled to his first-place money,” said Motsko. “In the
opinion of the White Marlin Open, we felt all along this was the fairest outcome.”

 

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