MIAMI, FL - The Department of Justice and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida announced that Optimus, Inc., a Miami-based gourmet company doing business as Marky’s Caviar and the International Food Emporium, pled guilty today to federal wildlife and smuggling charges. Optimus Inc., one of the largest importers of sturgeon caviar in the United States, has admitted that it purchased approximately 5.9 tons of smuggled caviar from five separate smuggling rings.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, Optimus Inc. will pay a $1 million criminal fine. The company is also being required to develop a stringent wildlife compliance plan and remain subject to government and court supervision while serving five years of probation. The plea agreement is subject to approval by the court.
Most of the criminal activity occurred between late 1999 and early 2000, at which time there was a particularly high demand for sturgeon caviar-a perennial New Year’s and holiday gourmet delicacy-due to the millennial year celebrations. In all cases, Optimus directed its suppliers to provide invoices stating that the caviar had been lawfully imported into the United States, even though there were indications to the contrary.
According to papers filed in court, including a detailed joint factual statement signed by the company’s president and vice-president, Optimus, Inc. has admitted to committing the following crimes:
• Knowingly purchasing sturgeon caviar with false wildlife invoices: Optimus, Inc. purchased caviar with false and fictitious invoices that concealed the quantity and price per kilo being paid for the caviar. The use of false wildlife documents is a felony violation of the Lacey Act, a wildlife protection law. This caviar was purchased from Beluga Caviar, Inc., a company owned by Victor Tsimbal, who has been previously convicted in the Southern District of Florida for smuggling caviar into the United States with a ring of paid couriers.
• Knowingly purchasing smuggled caviar: Optimus Inc. purchased caviar from two smuggling rings operating in Miami under circumstances that should have made it obvious that the caviar was smuggled. According to the company’s signed admissions, it had every reason to believe that it was purchasing smuggled merchandise but deliberately closed its eyes to the facts. Optimus wired money to various foreign bank accounts in exchange for the caviar that was delivered to the company’s headquarters.
• Failing to exercise due care in purchasing smuggled caviar: Optimus purchased caviar from two additional smuggling rings. In both cases, Optimus purchased the caviar from these companies without ever receiving any document which would have indicated that the caviar had been lawfully imported into the United States.
"The future of this species has been endangered by the type of illegal practices engaged in by Marky’s Caviar," said Thomas L. Sansonetti, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Caspian Sea sturgeon are a species of prehistoric origin which are likely to be wiped out by the greed of smugglers and those willing to buy from them.”
"This office committed to vigorously prosecuting those who place the prospect of profits before environmental and wildlife concerns," said Marcos Daniel Jimenez, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
Sturgeon can live up to 100 years. Because the time necessary to reach egg-bearing age can be up to 20 years and because the fish are 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 four 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.
Sentencing has been scheduled for Tuesday, January 25, 2005 at 4:30 pm before U.S. District Court Judge Alan S. Gold.
This investigation was conducted by special agents with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Division of Law Enforcement in Miami and New York with assistance provided by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Food & Drug Administration. The case was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida and the Environmental Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice.