Lee County, Florida Man Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Smuggle Turtles to Germany and Hong Kong and Falsely Labeling the Turtles on Related Paperwork
Two Broward County residents were sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Jose E. Martinez, in Key West, Florida, for conspiring to illegally sell wildlife.
Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Tracy Dunn, Assistant Director, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement, and David Pharo, Resident Agent in Charge, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement, made the announcement.
Robert V. Kelton, 60, of Hollywood, Florida, and Bruce Brande, 59, of Cooper City, Florida, conspired together and with others to transport, sell, receive, acquire, and purchase live rock and invertebrates, specifically Ricordea florida, with a fair market value in excess of $350.00, knowing the wildlife was taken, possessed, transported, or sold, in violation of the laws and regulations of the State of Florida. Kelton and Brande also knowingly made and submitted false declarations to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service which understated the value of the wildlife which was intended to be imported, transported, sold, purchased, and received from a foreign country.
According to court documents and statements made in court, beginning in October 2006 Kelton and Brande conspired with different marine life collectors to purchase quantities of live rock with attached marine life, such as Ricordea florida, which was illegally harvested and transported from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). Live rock is an essential building block of the reef system of the Florida Keys. Through October 2010, Kelton produced numerous false invoices, in order to conceal the transactions. The fraudulent invoices documented sales of live rock with marine life attached, purportedly imported from Haiti, to marine life collectors, when in truth and in fact the products were actually harvested from the FKNMS. Records seized by federal agents indicated that Kelton and Brande had made $37,108.41 in sales, at wholesale prices, of live rock with Ricordea and other marine life through a former Miami business, D. R. Imports, Inc. (DRI). The records also showed that that from November 12, 2008, through 2010, 11,567 Ricordea polyps were sold to DRI at a wholesale price of $38,637.50. Half of the wholesale price is attributable to live rock that was illegally harvested from the FKNMS.
From February 2011 through May 2011, Kelton and Brande shipped and sold through interstate commerce to a dealer in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, large pieces of live rock, bearing Ricordea florida and Zoanthus pulchellus, at a wholesale value of almost $5,000. Kelton and Brande knew that the live rock had been illegally harvested from the FKNMS but it was falsely advertised for sale as having originated from Haiti.
Pursuant to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act and the National Marine Sanctuary Act, the NOAA has established regulations governing the conduct of activities within the Sanctuary. Title 15, Code of Federal Regulations, Section 922.163(a)(2) prohibits the removal of, injury to, or possession of coral or live rock. Section 922.163(a)(2)(I) prohibits moving, removing, taking, harvesting, damaging, disturbing, breaking, cutting, or otherwise injuring any living or dead coral or coral formation, or attempting any of these activities.
Florida Administrative Code, Section 68B-42.008, prohibits the harvesting of live rock. Florida Statute 370.07 requires that a person who sells salt water marine related wildlife, such as Ricordea florida, hold a State wholesale and retail license. None of the individuals and corporations referenced herein, including Kelton and Brande, were authorized to harvest or attempt to harvest any live rock from the FKNMS or State waters during the aforementioned time, nor did they hold the marine related wholesale and retail permits required by Florida Statute 370.07
From January 2009 through December 2012, Kelton and Brande made and submitted fraudulent declarations to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Customs and Border Protection in order to secure clearance of marine wildlife shipments imported from the Dominican Republic and Haiti for commercial re-sale. The investigation revealed that importations from the Dominican Republic and Haiti businesses, for which a second set of “supplier’s” invoices existed at DRI, reflected commercial values significantly higher than on the invoices and records submitted by Kelton and Brande on DRI’s behalf. The value declared to the federal agencies during the course of the presentation of the importations for clearance was intentionally understated by $352,594.
Kelton was sentenced to a concurrent term of two years imprisonment, followed by three years of supervised release thereafter.
Brande was sentenced to one year and one day, followed by one year of supervised release.
Mr. Ferrer commended the joint investigative efforts of the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement, analysts with the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement Crime Trade Analyst Team, and the U.S. 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. This case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald.