WASHINGTON, D.C. - Ralph Edward Williamson of St. Petersburg, Florida, has pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of violating the Endangered Species Act, the Department of Justice announced today. Williamson was charged by a federal grand jury in March 2005 with one felony count of conspiring to violate the Endangered Species Act, to commit false statements, to import plants contrary to law and to violate Plant Protection and Quarantine requirements. He was further charged in the indictment with two counts of smuggling and two misdemeanor counts of violating the Endangered Species Act. The guilty plea was entered pursuant to a plea agreement, allowing Williamson to plea to one broader misdemeanor offense.
"We are very serious about enforcing the laws that protect endangered plants and wildlife from exploitation and extinction," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Kelly A. Johnson. "Today's plea agreement is an example of our commitment to prosecuting those individuals who would threaten valuable and rare protected species."
The charges against Williamson arose from his role in the illegal importation and subsequent possession of protected species of cycads into the United States from South Africa, Australia, Ecuador and/or Colombia up to and including July 2001. Cycads, which resemble palms or tree ferns, are a small group of primitive-looking plants whose ancestors date back more than 200 million years. Certain cycad species face threats in the wild from habitat loss and over-collection. Cycads are protected under Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty through which the United States and more than 150 other countries protect certain species of fish, wildlife and plants against over exploitation by regulating trade in the species. Protected species are listed in appendices to CITES. Species listed in Appendix I, the most protected designation, are those threatened with extinction. Appendix I species may be traded only in exceptional circumstances, and then only with and pursuant to the terms of required permits.
Williamson pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Tampa, Florida to possessing over 48 cycads that he knew had been traded contrary to the provisions of CITES. All of the species of cycads Williamson admitted to possessing illegally are listed in Appendix I of CITES.
The United States implements CITES through the Endangered Species Act which prohibits trade in specimens contrary to CITES as well as possession of specimens that have been traded contrary to CITES.
The investigation of this case was led by Special Agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida and the Environmental Crimes Section of the Department of Justice.