Ashu Bhandari, the former president and CEO of GEM Manufacturing LLC, a U.S. Virgin Islands-based company, was sentenced Thursday in federal court in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I., for felony customs violations for his role in a scheme to illegally import protected black coral into the United States, the Department of Justice announced. Bhandari is the last defendant to be sentenced as the result of a far reaching investigation into the illegal trade in black coral. The scheme cost Bhandari’s company, GEM Manufacturing, millions of dollars in financial penalties and sent two of his trading partners to prison.
At today’s hearing, the court imposed a criminal fine of $918,950 and sentenced Bhandari to one month in jail, to be followed by one month of home confinement and one year of supervised release, during which Bhandari would be required to complete 300 hours of community service and be banned from any business venture involving coral or coral products. In addition to the fine, Bhandari will be required to pay $229,687 to the University of the Virgin Islands to be used for community service projects designed to research and protect black corals. The court recognized that Bhandari’s sentence was based, in part, on his cooperation with federal investigators in related illicit coral trafficking cases.
On Nov. 7, 2012, Ashu Bhandari pleaded guilty to one felony count of false classification of goods for his efforts to conceal his illegal importation of internationally protected black coral in 2009. GEM was in the business of manufacturing high-end jewelry and sculpture products that utilize black coral. During his term as CEO, Bhandari was responsible for ensuring the continued supply of raw black coral for the company. Black corals are considered important habitat for the deep sea marine environment and are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Each of the species of black coral is listed in Appendix II of CITES and is subject to strict trade regulations.
Bhandari admitted that by 2008, he learned that GEM’s Taiwanese suppliers of black coral could not obtain legitimate CITES certificates. In spite of this knowledge, Bhandari made a “business decision to go forward” with the Taiwanese suppliers. The Taiwanese suppliers would label the coral shipments as “plastic” in order to fool customs authorities in Hong Kong and the United States. Bhandari admitted that by 2009 he knew that the shipments he arranged on behalf of GEM were coming into St. Thomas falsely labeled.
“Mr. Bhandari actively participated in an illegal scheme to traffic in protected black coral, a trade that has helped deplete a world resource that serves as essential habitat for marine biodiversity,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the Department of Justice. “As this case clearly shows, the Department of Justice will continue to aggressively prosecute those who violate U.S. law by illegally trafficking in protected species.”
“The effective stewardship of our natural resources by vigorously enforcing environmental laws is a priority of the Department of Justice,” said Ronald W. Sharpe, U.S. Attorney for the District of the Virgin Islands. “This prosecution, like many cases involving the investigation and prosecution of those who set out to exploit our precious natural resources, was complex, time consuming and required the expertise of multiple law enforcement agencies. The dedication and cooperative efforts of the various law enforcement agencies involved in the successful prosecution of this matter are to be commended.”
“This investigation is the culmination of a three year joint investigation led by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and U.S. Customs and Border Protection,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Resident Agent in Charge David Pharo. “This investigation serves as a great example of multiple agencies, working together to stem the tide of exploitation of internationally protected species originating in marine environments. This investigation demonstrates our commitment to combat illegal international wildlife trafficking and bring justice to those that exploit protected marine resources for personal gain no matter where they are located.”
“Illegal importation and exportation of commercial quantities of CITES-protected corals is one of our Division's high priorities,” said Otha Easley, Acting Special Agent in Charge for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement's Southeast Division. “Effective enforcement of CITES helps ensure that collection of these species is sustainable and that their survival in the wild is assured.”
“This sentence sends a clear message to black coral traffickers that we and our federal law enforcement partners are in the business of preventing illegal wildlife trade,” said Angel Melendez, Acting Special Agent in charge of HSI San Juan and U.S.V.I. “We will continue to identify and apprehend those who exploit protected species for commercial gain.”
Black coral is a precious coral that can be polished to a high sheen, worked into artistic sculptures and used in inlaid jewelry. Black coral is typically found in deep waters and many species have long life spans and are slow-growing. Using deep sea submersibles, scientists have observed that fish and invertebrates tend to accumulate around the black coral colonies. Thus, black coral communities serve important habitat functions in the mesophotic and deepwater zones. In the last few decades, pressures from overharvesting, due in part to the wider availability of scuba gear and the introduction of invasive species have threatened this group of coral. Recent seizures of illegal black coral around the world have led many to believe that black coral poaching is on the rise.
On Oct. 26, 2011, in the related case of U.S. v. GEM Manufacturing LLC, Case No. 2011-19 (D. Virgin Islands), GEM was sentenced to criminal financial penalties and forfeitures exceeding $4.47 million and three and a half years of probation that included a 10-point compliance plan that incorporated an auditing, tracking and inventory control program. GEM was also banned from doing business with its former coral supplier, Peng Chia Enterprise Co. Ltd. and its management team of Ivan and Gloria Chu. Ashu Bhandari was the individual known as “Co-conspirator X” in the related case of U.S. v. Gloria and Ivan Chu, Case No. 2010-003 (D. Virgin Islands). In January 2010, federal agents arrested the Chus as part of a sting operation in Las Vegas. The Chus were subsequently indicted in 2010 for illegally providing black coral to GEM. On June 23, 2010, Ivan Chu was sentenced to serve 30 months in prison and pay a $12,500 fine. Gloria Chu was sentenced to serve 20 months in prison and pay a $12,500 fine.
The case, developed as a result of Operation “Black Gold”, was investigated by agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and NOAA with support from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Analysis of coral samples by the FWS’s National Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Ore., was critical to the investigation. The case was prosecuted by Christopher Hale of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section, Environment and Natural Resources Division and Nelson Jones of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the U.S. Virgin Islands.