The owner of an Eliot seafood company pleaded guilty Tuesday to a dozen federal charges for directing an employee to stagger more than $157,000 in cash withdrawals to avoid Treasury Department reporting requirements. The money was used to buy live lobsters off the dock.

John Price, the owner of J.P.’s Shellfish, had an office manager make a series of bank withdrawals from 2008 to 2010, each for less than $10,000, to avoid detection, according to a court document filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Employees would then use the cash to pay a dock worker at the Spruce Head Fisherman’s Coop in South Thomaston for lobsters rather than buy them from a licensed wholesale dealer, Assistant U.S. Attorney Julia Lipez said in the filing.

Federal law requires financial institutions to file a Currency Transaction Report with the U.S. Department of Treasury for a transaction or series of transactions exceeding $10,000.

“The defendant, through instructions to his office manager, structured the withdrawal of cash transactions from his bank account so as to avoid these reporting requirements,” Lipez said in the prosecuting document. “Specifically, when J.P.’s Shellfish had to pay a single purchase in excess of $10,000 relating to a cash transaction with the Coop dock employee, the defendant instructed his office manager, the person who actually withdrew the funds from the business bank account, not to withdraw more than $10,000 at any one time.”

The dock worker’s side transactions were made without approval of the Coop. The worker purchased the lobster from select fishermen, then resold them to J.P.’s Shellfish, bypassing the Coop. Price did not know the side transactions were unauthorized, court records state.

At a hearing in U.S. District Court in Portland before Judge D. Brock Hornby, Price, 58, of Kittery pleaded guilty to 12 counts of structuring cash transactions.

A remaining misdemeanor charge that Price violated the federal Lacey Act by trafficking in illegally sold lobster is still pending. He entered no plea to that count, and court records make no indication of what may happen with that charge. Lipez declined to comment when reached by phone.

To date, Price is the only person to be charged in connection with the case, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. It is unclear whether others may be charged.

Price, who pleaded guilty without having been arrested, remains free on $10,000 cash bail.

His attorney, Daniel Mitchell, declined to comment on the case when reached after the plea hearing.

Price faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on each of the 12 counts. He is scheduled to be sentenced on May 22.

J.P.’s Shellfish deals in oysters, lobsters, clams and mussels and has the ability to store 100,000 pounds of lobster at its Eliot facility, according to the company’s website.

Scott Dolan can be reached at 791-6304 or at:

sdolan@pressherald.com

Twitter: @scottddolan