Ginseng Dealer Pleads Guilty to Multiple Felonies
[GREENEVILLE, Tenn.] —Michael Keith Turner of Hartford, Tennessee, pled guilty today before Senior United States District Judge R. Leon Jordan to three federal felony counts charging that Mr. Turner had created false records to conceal illegal purchases of ginseng made prior to the legal harvest season in 2015. The grand jury indictment charged that Mr. Turner had violated the Lacey Act, a federal law enacted to combat the illegal trafficking of plants and wildlife, while operating of his ginseng business, known as “High Mountain Ginseng.” This plea is the result of “Operation Green Gold,” a multi-jurisdiction investigation conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) into the illegal harvesting, trafficking, and smuggling of American Ginseng.
As part of his plea agreement, Mr. Turner agreed to pay restitution to the State of Tennessee and perform 100 hours of community service. Sentencing is set for June 11, 2020, at 1:15 p.m., and Mr. Turner faces a maximum term of imprisonment of up to 15 years.
American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), is a slow-growing perennial species of plant found throughout the Northeast, Midwest, and Appalachian regions of the United States. Wild American Ginseng has substantial commercial value because there is a national and international market for its use as an ingredient in food, drinks, and traditional medicines. American Ginseng is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora of 1973 (CITES) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The purpose of CITES is to monitor, control, and restrict, as necessary, the international trade of certain wild plant and animal species in an effort to prevent adverse impacts and ensure continued existence of those species in their natural habitat.
In Tennessee, the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation (TDEC) has responsibilities, under CITES, the ESA, and state law, to regulate and monitor the commercial harvest of wild American Ginseng and to ensure that populations are not imperiled. Accordingly, American Ginseng dealers are required to routinely submit paperwork to TDEC to document their ginseng purchases. Mr. Turner admitted to falsifying several of those documents in 2015 after purchasing American Ginseng before the opening of the established season for harvesting and purchasing American Ginseng. The USFWS investigates illegal ginseng trafficking associated with the international and interstate trade under the Lacey Act.
The guilty plea was announced today by Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, J. Douglas Overbey, and Assistant Director Edward Grace of the Office of Law Enforcement for the USFWS.
“By falsifying records in the manner he did, the defendant, and other Ginseng dealers like him, frustrate the regulatory system put in place by the USFWS, TDEC, and others making it impossible to effectively manage and protect an imperiled species. In doing so they are also fostering an interstate black market in protected wildlife and plants that is decimating this country’s natural resources. This felony plea sends a clear message that the United States will prosecute the kind of conduct Mr. Turner took responsibility for today,” stated Assistant Attorney General Bossert Clark.
The USFWS conducted the investigation in this case. The United States is represented in Court by Assistant United States Attorney Matthew T. Morris and Environmental Crimes Section Senior Trial Attorney Todd Gleason.
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