John Dougherty; Treasure Law Expert

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Alfred John Dougherty Jr., 67, a lawyer who became a leading specialist on offshore treasure law while representing renowned treasure hunter Mel Fisher, fugitive financier Robert Vesco and explorers of a Japanese submarine laden with two tons of gold, died Oct. 20 at Georgetown University Hospital of a heart attack. He was 67.

Mr. Dougherty, a former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer who worked at Hogan & Hartson law firm in the District, in the early 1970s began representing Fisher when the colorful dive shop owner and former chicken farmer ran afoul of SEC regulations for selling unregistered securities -- shares of his dream of finding the stupendously rich 1622 shipwreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha.

Against all odds, Fisher and his band of underpaid divers found the main treasure trove, worth an estimated $400 million, in 1985. But the state of Florida and the federal government claimed the bounty, and years of legal battles ensued until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor. Fisher died in 1998.

Mr. Dougherty worked on the legal issues throughout the decades and contributed to the Supreme Court case, although he did not appear in court, lead attorney David Paul Horan said.

"He was somebody who had a very, very flexible mind and came up with some things that were truly out of the box," Horan said from his Key West office. "Especially in the unregistered securities case, in which Mel was selling unregistered securities. Instead of living high on the hog, he was pouring the money right back into the ships and living on a houseboat that periodically sank. There wasn't anybody complaining, which was amazing because everybody was into the hunt. . . . We signed an agreement with the state and federal government that said Mel had not done anything wrong and he sure would not do it again."

Mr. Dougherty got the treasure hunt fever himself, diving with Fisher in the Caribbean, searching for the lost island of Atlantis and exploring reputed treasure sites in Africa and Guatemala.

"Without exception, they returned with a wealth of stories, but no treasure," said one of his sons, Geoff Dougherty of Chicago. "He was not a man of the sea; he was a pretty bookish guy who got caught up in all this stuff."

Mr. Dougherty also represented a group of explorers who in 1995 recovered the I-52, a Japanese submarine torpedoed 1,200 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands during World War II. The sub carried two tons of gold, 228 tons of tin, molybdenum and tungsten, 54 tons of raw rubber, 3 tons of quinine and 109 men, part of a secret exchange between Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito.

Mike Tidwell, the maritime researcher from Centerville who discovered the I-52, said Mr. Dougherty's expertise and advice were key to the project's success.

"After we located [the submarine], we were going over all the laws, and he said, 'Paul, you know what you might do is just ask' [the Japanese government for salvage rights]. He and I went to Tokyo . . . and formed a good working relationship with the people there due to the fact we didn't take the approach of being adversarial," Tidwell said.

Mr. Dougherty also represented explorers seeking to recover the wreck of the HMS Titanic.

Mr. Dougherty, known as John, was born in Bradford, Pa. He graduated from Harvard University and received a degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1965. He moved to Washington and worked as acting chief enforcement attorney in the SEC's division of corporate regulation and as legal assistant to SEC Commissioner Richard B. Smith.

In 1969, he joined Hogan & Hartson, where he specialized in corporate and securities matters. There he represented Vesco, the financier who fled to Cuba after securities regulators accused him of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars from Investors Overseas Service.

After becoming a lawyer for Fisher's Treasure Salvors Inc., Mr. Dougherty also represented the nonprofit Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society. Most recently, Mr. Dougherty was of counsel at Moore & Bruce and advised clients on securities issues.

Mr. Dougherty, an amateur cook and tennis player, became a student of Spanish language and literature. During a sabbatical in 1984, he and his family lived for six months in Comillas, on Spain's northern coast.

He was a member of the University Club and the Edgemoor Club.

In addition to his son Geoff, survivors include his wife of 42 years, Christine Archangeli Dougherty of Washington; another son, Andrew Dougherty of Melrose, Mass.; a sister; and two grandchildren.

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