News and Press Releases

Idaho Aquarium Operators Sentenced For Illegal Trafficking Of Marine Life

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 2, 2013

Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Otha Easley, Acting Special Agent in Charge, NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement, and David Pharo, Resident Agent in Charge U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Miami, announce that Ammon Covino, 40, formerly of Meridian, Idaho, and Christopher Conk, 40, of Middleton, Idaho, were sentenced today in federal District Court in Key West for conspiring to harvest, transport, and sell spotted eagle rays and lemon sharks, knowing the marine life were taken, possessed, transported, sold, and intended to be sold in violation of the laws and regulations of the State of Florida, contrary to the federal Lacey Act, Title 16, United States Code, Sections 3372(a)(2)(A), and 3373(d)(1) and (2), all in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 371.

Covino was sentenced by United States District Court Judge Jose E. Martinez to one year and a day in prison, followed by a term of supervised release of two years. Additionally, Covino was barred by the Court from any employment during the period of supervised release that involves the possession, display, transportation, exhibition, purchase, or sale of wildlife. Conk, who cooperated with investigators, received a reduced sentence of four months in prison followed by two years of supervised release. Conk was also the subject of an Order of Forfeiture which forfeited the motor vehicle used in perpetrating the crime. As part of his sentence, 180 days of the supervised release is to be served in home detention under electronic monitoring. Conk also received the specific employment prohibition during his period of supervised release, as Covino. In imposing the prison sentences, Judge Martinez stated that the defendants’ conduct “strikes to the very heart of this area and the economy of this area.”

According to the Indictment, Joint Factual Statements submitted to the Court, and argument at sentencing, during March 2012 through approximately November 2012, Covino and Conk engaged in a conspiracy to purchase and transport wildlife from the Florida Keys to Idaho for exhibit at the Idaho Aquarium in Boise. The wildlife included spotted eagle rays and lemon sharks, which required Florida licenses and permits never acquired by the participants in the deals. According to the Factual Statements, Covino and Conk were both at the time officers of the Aquarium, were individually advised of the requirements of the law, and nevertheless directed their Florida-based suppliers to ignore the law and make the shipments. Unknown to Covino and Conk at the time of the phone calls was the fact that the business owner was cooperating with federal authorities and the phone conversations and text messages were recorded. Payment for the various specimens was made by credit cards held in the Aquarium?s name. The defendants acknowledged that their illegal conduct was within the scope of their employment, and intended to benefit, at least in part, the Idaho Aquarium. In the same case, Idaho Aquarium, Inc. pled guilty to the same conspiracy count and is awaiting sentencing.

In a separate criminal proceeding, United States v. Peter C. Covino, IV, Case No. 13-10010-CR-Martinez, Peter Covino, the nephew of Ammon Covino, was tried, convicted, and sentenced for obstruction of justice in connection with his effort to persuade the supplier in the Florida Keys to destroy the invoices and messages related to the illegal purchases of marine life to prevent their use in Ammon Covino’s case, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Sections 1512(b)(2)(B). Testimony at the trial established that after Ammon Covino had been arrested on February 21, 2013 he induced Peter Covino to make the calls. During the sentencing proceeding, Judge Martinez specifically noted that Peter Covino would likely never have been involved in the criminal conduct but for the actions of his uncle.

Mr. Ferrer commended the joint investigative efforts of the Special Agents of the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement and the Fish & Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement who participated in the long-term investigation into the illegal harvesting and sale of marine life resources from the Florida Keys known as Operation Rock Bottom, and the assistance of the Officers of the Idaho Department of Fish & Game. This case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thomas Watts-FitzGerald of the Economic & Environmental Crimes Section and Antonia Barnes of the Asset Forfeiture Division, with assistance from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Idaho.

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A copy of this press release may be found on the website of the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida at http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/fls. Related court documents and information may be found on the website of the District Court for the Southern District of Florida at http://www.flsd.uscourts.gov or on http://pacer.flsd.uscourts.gov.

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