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Gourmet Food Retailers Got Counterfeit And Doctored Caviar For New Year 2000

GREENBELT, MD The Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division announced today that Alfred Yazback, president and owner of Connoisseur Brands Ltd., will serve time in prison and pay fines for conspiring to smuggle protected sturgeon caviar and making false statements to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), as well as selling counterfeit caviar to retail food companies with false labels in violation of the Lacey Act, a wildlife protection statute.

Yazback, 47, the president and owner of New York-based caviar company Connoisseur Brands will serve two years in prison, pay a $26,404 individual fine and pay $23,596 restitution for unpaid custom duties for caviar smuggled into the country using false double invoices that minimized the value. Connoisseur Brands will pay a criminal fine of $110,000, which includes a community service payment of $25,000 to the Fish and Wildlife Foundation for the preservation and restoration of Sturgeon and American Paddlefish in Maryland and the United States.

"Smuggling wildlife, especially protected species with questionable futures, is a serious crime," said Thomas L. Sansonetti, Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resources Division. "This case highlights that domestic sturgeon species and Paddlefish are protected by the same laws that protect sturgeon in the Caspian Sea. The Justice Department is dedicated to enforcing the laws designed to protect and preserve protected species to ensure their survival."

Yazback was caught in "Operation Malossol" a covert operation in which a FWS special agent posed as a buyer with Sutton Place Gourmet in Rockville, MD. The undercover agent, in cooperation with Sutton Place, purchased caviar from Connoisseur Brands, which was then DNA tested by the FWS National Forensics Laboratory in Oregon. The DNA results showed that the vast majority of Russian Sevruga caviar one of three types of commercially available caviar purchased from Connoisseur was in fact fish eggs from the American Paddlefish, a protected species indigenous to the United States and found in the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers. While Paddlefish roe has less commercial value, when processed it is sufficiently similar in appearance that it can be "passed off" to the uninformed consumer as Sevruga caviar from the Caspian Sea.

In a signed statement filed in Court, the defendants admitted to the following:

The case was investigated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the FBI, with assistance from the U.S. Customs Service, and prosecuted by the DOJ Environment Division in coordination with the U.S. Attorney's Office for Maryland.