For Immediate Release
November 13, 1998

Contact: Tom MacKenzie
404/679-7291
USA (813) 274-6000
DOJ (202) 514-2008
WWW.USDOJ.GOV
TDD (202) 514-1888

DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE (DOJ) ANNOUNCES INDICTMENTS IN  SEA SMUGGLING SCAM

Florida Importer, Philippine Exporter Allegedly Imported Protected Corals, Seashells

Washington, DC:  A federal grand jury today has indicted two individuals, a Florida importer and a Philippines exporter, for conspiring to smuggle protected corals and seashells into the United States, announced the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida. This is believed to be the first federal criminal felony case brought against alleged smugglers of internationally protected corals and seashells, and involves such rare and protected species as organ-pipe and feather corals and bear's paw clams and trumpet seashells.

"Trafficking in protected corals and seashells harms biological diversity and degrades our environment," said Lois J. Schiffer, Assistant Attorney General for Environment and Natural Resources at the Justice Department. "We will bring the full force of the law against those who engage in such activity. We will use the resources available, both nationally and internationally, to put an end to the black market in protected corals and seashells."

The indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in Tampa, Florida, charges Petros "Pete" Leventis, his business, Greek Island Imports, Inc. and Esther T. Flores with conspiring to smuggle protected corals and seashells into the United States. Leventis is the owner and operator of Greek Island Imports, Inc., a seashells and gift shop located in Tarpon Springs, FL. Flores is the owner and operator of Esther Enterprises, a corals and seashells exporting business located in Cebu City, Republic of the Philippines.

The six count felony indictment alleges that from 1991 through 1997, Leventis joined with Flores in a scheme where they used false declarations, invoices and other shipping documents to smuggle various types of protected corals and seashells into the United States. According to the indictment, the final shipment arrived in Tampa in July 1997 and contained over 400 boxes and packages of coral and protected seashells. It was detected and seized by the U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and federal authorities initiated the criminal investigation.

Charles R. Wilson, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, commented that smuggling, such as what is alleged to have occurred in this case, will not be tolerated in the Port of Tampa. "We intend to do our part to eliminate the exploitation of these species and protect the global environment."

Each of the defendants are charged with conspiring to violate the Endangered Species Act, which implements CITES in the United States, the federal anti-smuggling statute and the Lacey Act (the federal anti-wildlife trafficking statute), as well as violating the Lacey Act's false wildlife labeling provisions. Additionally, Leventis and Greek Island Imports, Inc. are charged with importation violations under the Lacey Act and Title 18 of the United States Code. Violations of these laws are punishable against individuals by a statutory maximum sentence of up to five years of imprisonment and up to a $250,000 fine per count, while companies are punishable by a fine of up to $500,000 per count.

The export of corals has been banned under Philippine law since 1977. Many corals, including the blue, organ-pipe, branch, brush, staghorn, finger, and brown stem corals alleged to have been shipped from the Philippines to Leventis have been listed since 1985 in the CITES treaty. Under this international wildlife treaty, the corals are listed as species which may become threatened with extinction unless their trade is subject to strict regulation. Under the treaty, they are subject to permitting requirements.

Additionally, the defendants are alleged to have conspired to smuggle seashells protected under CITES and/or Philippine law, including giant clams, China clams, bear's paw clams, helmet shells and trumpet shells.

"This law enforcement case is an excellent example of how we can help save this extremely fragile resource -- one that hosts nearly one-quarter of all fish species," said Sam Hamilton, Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Stopping the flow of illegally harvested and imported coral for souvenirs and aquariums is one way we can reduce the decline of coral reefs." Hamilton went on to point out the economic value of coral reefs, saying that AIn Florida, for example, reefs provide $1.6 billion annually to the economy from tourism alone."

"This smuggling investigation is a prime example of the breadth and diversity of laws enforced by the U.S. Customs Service," said Steven J Trent, Special Agent-in-Charge, United States Customs Service, Tampa. "This investigation reflects our diligence in striving to protect the environment and natural resources."

This case is being jointly prosecuted by the United States Attorney's Office in Tampa and the Wildlife and Marine Resources Section of the U.S. Department of Justice. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Customs Service are pursuing the investigation.

An indictment constitutes a formal method of charging individuals with a crime. The defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt following trial.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprising more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state wildlife agencies.

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Release #: R98-112


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