Company President Pleads Guilty to Caviar Smuggling Conspiracy
May 21, 2004
Miami Ring Used Paid Couriers to Smuggle Caviar in Suitcases
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Department of Justice announced today that Mariusz Chomicz, the President of a caviar company in Poland, pled guilty and was sentenced to 30 months in prison for his part in a smuggling conspiracy in which paid couriers brought suitcases filled with caviar into the United States after new international restrictions were announced in 1998 to protect sturgeon.
“Caspian Sea sturgeon are a species of pre-historic origin which are likely to be wiped out by the greed of smugglers and those willing to buy from them,” said Tom Sansonetti, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Recent prosecutions have shown that the caviar trade is plagued by criminal activity which will result in the inevitable collapse of sturgeon populations absent vigorous enforcement. The Justice Department is dedicated to enforcing the laws designed to protect and preserve sturgeon and other protected wildlife from the threat of extinction.”
“Wildlife smuggling is a vice that will not be tolerated in Miami,” said Marcos Daniel Jiménez, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. “Let the buyer beware, this is the latest in a string of caviar prosecutions. We are committed to vigorously prosecuting those who place the prospect of profits before environmental concerns and violate wildlife laws.”
Chomicz, 29, a Polish national, was sentenced in a late afternoon hearing yesterday before U.S. District Court Judge Joan A. Lenard.
In pleading guilty, Chomicz admitted that he purchased the caviar on the black market in Poland and that co-conspirators then hired couriers to smuggle the caviar into the United States in their luggage. Once the caviar arrived in Miami, another co-conspirator arranged to pick up the couriers and put them up at a hotel. A total of 1,539 kilograms of caviar were smuggled during the scheme. Chomicz was directly responsible for 619 kilograms of smuggled caviar worth as much as $1.8 million.
The caviar was sold to a Miami-based caviar company with the use of a forged U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service import license and false invoices using the name BMT Trading. No such company ever existed and the smugglers sales price was well below market value, according to papers filed in Court. While Chomicz received two checks totaling $51,679 the Miami purchaser of the smuggled caviar wired the bulk of the payments to various bank accounts in Poland, which were maintained in the name of other participants in the conspiracy. Chomicz held power-of-attorney over several of these accounts.
Sturgeon can live up to 100 years. Because the time necessary to reach egg-bearing age can be up to 20 years and the fish is killed in the process of obtaining the roe that is salted to make caviar, sturgeon are especially vulnerable. A major threat to the survival of the sturgeon is the trade in black market caviar smuggled from Russia and four other Caspian sea nations. As of April 1, 1998, the protection accorded to sturgeon was greatly enhanced by the listing of all species as protected under the international treaty known as CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Prior to importing caviar into the United States from a foreign country, a valid foreign export permit issued by the country of origin or a valid foreign re-export certificate issued by the country of re-export must first be obtained. The Endangered Species Act makes it unlawful for any person subject to United States jurisdiction to engage in trade or to possess any specimens traded contrary to the provisions of CITES.
Beluga sturgeon were recently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Female beluga sturgeon are considered the world’s most valuable commercially harvested fish because they supply beluga caviar, one of the most highly-prized delicacies in the world. Unregulated overfishing, loss of spawning habitat, and poaching to supply the black market beluga caviar trade have all contributed to a notable decrease in the wild beluga sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea.
Chomicz was part of a conspiracy in which couriers were paid to smuggle black market caviar from Europe to Miami without CITES certificates or declaration to the authorities as required. Special Agents with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in New York, with the assistance of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, arrested Chomicz at the Newark airport as he attempted to leave the United States. Chomicz entered a guilty plea in December.
The prosecution of Chomicz is the tenth criminal case to be brought in the Southern District of Florida relating to caviar smuggling over the past three years. The individuals previously convicted in Miami have all received prison sentences.
This investigation was conducted by special agents with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Division of Law Enforcement in Miami and New York with assistance provided by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Food & Drug Administration. The case was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida and the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section, with assistance from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey.
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