OCEAN CITY — In the latest move of what will likely be months of legal wrangling, the winning angler in this year’s White Marlin Open is seeking to toss the case out of federal court and have the tourney pay him his $2.8 million prize.
In late August, White Marlin Open (WMO) officials announced a potential rules violation could disqualify the winner in the white marlin division, a 76.5-pounder caught by angler Phillip Heasley on the Kallianassa out of Naples, Fla. Heasley’s 76.5-pound white marlin turned out to be the only qualifier in the division during the tournament and was to receive a record $2.8 million in prize money because the Kallianassa was entered across the board in all added entry levels.
However, about two weeks after the 2016 tournament, WMO officials announced there appeared to be rules violations involved regarding the timing of the catch and that Heasley and three other individuals on the Kallianassa including the captain and two mates were deceptive on their answers to some of the questions during the requisite post-tournament polygraph examinations for the winners in major categories.
In August, WMO officials through their attorneys filed a Complaint for Interpleader in Worcester County Circuit Court, essentially asking a judge to intercede and decide first if there were rules violations committed by Heasley and the Kallianassa crew, and secondly, if there were violations, how best should the $2.8 million in prize money be distributed to the winners in other categories. Last month, Heasley filed a motion to remove the Complaint for Interpleader out of Worcester County Circuit Court and it landed instead in U.S. District Court. Heasley, a Florida resident, cited jurisdictional issues as the reason for moving the case from Worcester County Circuit Court to federal court.
On Monday, however, Heasley’s attorneys filed a systematic, paragraph-by-paragraph formal answer to the complaint denying any wrongdoing by the winning white marlin angler, the captain or the crew on the Kallianassa. Instead, the formal answer seeks to throw out the case and have the court award the payout.
“Heasley denies that he was deceptive, employed ‘countermeasures’ or violated the rules of the WMO,” the answer filed this week reads. “Heasley denies that Captain Morris was deceptive or violated the rules of the tournament. The allegations are hereby denied to the extent they state or suggest that Heasley was deceptive, employed so-called countermeasures, or that he or other aboard the Kallianassa violated the rules of the tournament.”
A closer review of the catch report caused tournament officials to realize that the time written down for when the winning white marlin was caught appeared to have been altered. Specifically, it appeared that although the time written down was initially ‘8:15 a.m.’, it had been subsequently altered to read ‘9:05’ before it was submitted to tournament officials. However, in his formal answer filed this week, Heasley asserts the apparent alteration was a clerical error and not an intentional attempt to circumvent the tournament rules.
“Further answering, Heasley states that any change to the catch report was a result of a scrivener’s error and was made at the time the report was filled out to reflect the correct time that the winning white marlin was caught,” the answer reads. “Heasley admits that neither he nor his captain or crew made any corrections to the catch report after it was submitted to tournament officials.”
If a federal judge confirms Heasley and the Kallianassa should be disqualified, the biggest winners stand to be the other 13 named “defendants” in the case, or the winners of several other categories to whom the first-place white marlin money would be distributed. However, Heasley contends in the formal answer filed this week he has never been formally disqualified from the 2016 WMO.
“Heasley admits that he has not been disqualified as the winner of the tournament,” the answer reads. “Heasley denies that the other tournament winners should receive any portion of the $2,818,662 first prize that should be paid to Heasley.”
Instead, Heasley asserts he was given the trophy and check at the awards ceremony after he had completed the required first polygraph test. It was only after another polygraph examiner, who was not present, viewed the results of the first test that a second polygraph exam was ordered. Heasley also said he wasn’t “invited” to take a second polygraph test, but rather was told he would not receive the prize money unless he agreed to it.
“The WMO declared Heasley the winner of the tournament and presented him both the first-place trophy and check at the awards ceremony after they had administered the first polygraph test,” the answer reads. “Therefore, the WMO waived any right it might have had to further dispute Heasley’s win and the court should order that Heasley be awarded the first place prize of $2,818,662.”
Heasley’s formal answer filed this week also contends the WMO broke its own rules, first by ordering the second polygraph exam, and secondly, but denying the defendant the right to submit his own evidence.
“Rather than follow the rules of the tournament, the WMO failed to allow Heasley the opportunity to submit his own evidence for consideration and instead filed this suit, requiring Heasley to defend his rights in a court of law,” the answer reads. “Under these circumstances, the WMO is estopped from relying on the so-called polygraph examination they administered to Heasley, the captain and the crew of the Kallianassa. As the WMO has no admissible evidence to question Heasley’s compliance with the rules, the court should order the WMO to pay the contest proceeds to Heasley.”
Heasley’s formal answer continues, “As a result of the WMO’s unfair practices, they violated the terms of their own rules and denied Heasley his rights and winnings. The court should, therefore, determine this controversy in favor of Heasley and order the WMO to pay him the prize money of $2.8 million.”
Meanwhile, the other 13 named defendants, which include the winners in several other categories, could find themselves moved over to the plaintiffs’ table as the case moves forward. Heasley also filed a motion on Monday to realign the parties with himself and the Kallianassa crew as defendants and the other named parties as the plaintiffs. However it sorts out, if a judge does determine rules were violated and disqualifies the Kallianassa, there could be a major shakeup in the distribution of the $2.8 million in prize money with each of the 13 other named defendants possibly getting a stake.
The one and only blue marlin that qualified during the tournament, a 790-pounder with a severed tail would gain another $254,620, nearly doubling its $258,995 already awarded and bringing its total to $513,615. The biggest gainer could be the first-place tuna, a 236.5-pounder, which could see its total prize soar to over $3 million, which would shatter all previous WMO records.
The second-place tuna gain an additional $140,509 to go along with its $131,968 in initial prize money. The two boats that tied for third in the tuna division would each gain an additional $47,190 and the remaining winners in the dolphin, wahoo and shark categories would each be awarded an additional $2,125.