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Miami-Based Ring Used Paid Couriers To Smuggle Caviar In Suitcases

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Department of Justice announced that Viktor Tsimbal, the president of Beluga Caviar Inc., pled guilty today to a far-reaching wildlife smuggling conspiracy in which he paid couriers to bring suitcases filled with caviar into the United States after new international restrictions were announced in 1998 to protect sturgeon.

Tsimbal, 41, is a Russian national and at the time of the offenses was the president and owner of Beluga Caviar, Inc., a Florida corporation located in North Miami Beach. He pled guilty to conspiracy, smuggling and money laundering charges contained in an indictment returned by a Miami grand jury on June 2, 2002. The maximum sentence for each of four counts of conspiracy and smuggling is five years; the maximum sentence for money laundering is 10 years. Tsimbal also forfeited $36,000 in his possession upon his arrest at Miami International Airport and could be sentenced to pay up to a $1 million criminal fine. Sentencing has been scheduled for November 6, 2002 at 2 p.m. before U.S. District Court Judge Federico A. Moreno.

Tsimbal also admitted to using false documents to smuggle more Beluga caviar from Russia into the United States via Poland in 1999 than the entire Russian export quota for the year, according to a detailed factual statement filed in court.

"Caspian Sea sturgeon may have been around since the age of dinosaurs, but the appetite of smugglers for profit has the potential to extinguish them from the earth. Recent prosecutions have shown that the caviar trade is rife with corruption, which will result in the inevitable collapse of sturgeon populations absent vigorous enforcement," said Tom Sansonetti, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "The Justice Department is dedicated to enforcing the laws designed to protect and preserve them from the threat of extinction."

"Smuggling and money laundering are a vice that will not be tolerated in Miami," said Marcos Daniel Jiménez, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. "We are committed to vigorously prosecuting those who place the prospect of profits before environmental concerns and violate wildlife laws."

Sturgeon are a species of prehistoric origin that 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 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 ("ESA") 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.

Tsimbal orchestrated a conspiracy in which smugglers were paid approximately $500 for each trip and were provided airline tickets, pre-packed luggage filled with black market caviar and apartment and hotel rooms in Europe and Miami, according to papers filed in court. Tsimbal used bank accounts in Europe to launder the proceeds of the wildlife smuggling scheme. In pleading guilty, Tsimbal also admitted that he encouraged an employee to lie to the grand jury.

According to papers filed in Court, the investigation began after Tsimbal offered to sell sturgeon caviar with false labels stating that the contents were "Atlantic Lumpfish Roe" – an unprotected species. Special agents executed a search warrant at Tsimbal's business and seized more than $500,000 worth of caviar along with the false labels. Tsimbal admitted today that the lumpfish labels were part of an overall scheme to continue to use false documents to smuggle caviar into the United States after a number of couriers had been arrested.

This investigation was conducted by special agents with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Division of Law Enforcement with assistance provided by the U.S. Customs Service and Food & Drug Administration. Caviar valuing approximately $860,000 was seized and forfeited by the FWS during the course of the investigation. The case was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida and the Department of Justice's Environment and Natural Resources Division.