Garden fined in orchid scandal

Phrag_2It looks like Selby Botanical Gardens has escaped a possible $100,000 fine in the Phrag. Kovachii drama. They’ve been charged a penalty of
$5,000 and will participate in renaming the plant “Phrag. Peruvianum”, which was the name originally proposed by ex-employee and rival Eric
Christenson before he got scooped.

“We didn’t think we were doing anything wrong, but it turned out we did, and we’re sorry we did,” (Selby chairwoman) Hansen said.”

Garden fined in orchid scandal

Garden fined in orchid scandal

Prosecutors say discovery of the Peruvian plant runs afoul of Endangered Species Act. A deal whittles the penalty to $5,000.

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 18, 2003
St. Petersburg Times

Selby orchid expert Wesley Higgins also was charged over the ladyslipper orchid, temporarily named Phragmipedium kovachii.

The orchid investigation damaged the reputation of the 13-acre Selby Botanical Gardens, which attracts 160,000 visitors a year. Several board members quit, the executive director was forced out and some major donors withheld pledges. Selby will change its procedures for how it handles orchids from other countries, said chairwoman Barbara Hansen.

In an unprecedented move, federal prosecutors Wednesday brought criminal charges against Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota and one of its employees for their role in the discovery of a dazzling ladyslipper orchid from Peru.

Selby Gardens was charged with a misdemeanor violation of the Endangered Species Act, the first time any botanical gardens in the United States has been charged with such a crime, experts said.

Selby’s board of directors has worked out a plea deal with federal prosecutors that will allow the botanical gardens to pay a fine of $5,000, instead of a potential penalty of up to $100,000.

“I suppose you’d say it was a slap on the wrist,” Selby chairwoman Barbara Hansen said.

One of Selby’s premier orchid experts, Wesley Higgins, also was charged with the same crime.

Higgins declined to comment, and a U.S. Justice Department spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Selby officials at first trumpeted the institution’s role in the June 2002 discovery of the plant species, which they hailed as the most exciting orchid find in a century.

But in August federal agents showed up to search Selby’s records, and a Tampa grand jury issued subpoenas to the staff.

“We didn’t think we were doing anything wrong, but it turned out we did, and we’re sorry we did,” Hansen said.

The yearlong investigation cast a pall over Selby, which draws 160,000 visitors a year to its 13-acre waterfront grounds and greenhouses. The pressure of scrutiny exacerbated tensions on Selby’s board to the point that several board members quit, the executive director was forced out and some major donors withheld pledges.

Hansen said she hopes that by accepting responsibility for its crime, Selby and its staff can put the scandal behind them. She said she hoped Selby would suffer no further consequences, such as the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants.

In addition to the fine, she said Selby has agreed to change its procedures for how it handles orchids from other countries and will encourage other scientific institutions to make similar changes.

“We don’t want other institutions to make the same mistake,” she said. “All institutions are just going to have to be more careful with their paperwork.”

She said Selby will petition the international scientific body in charge of naming species to withdraw the name Selby’s orchid experts gave to the bloom from Peru.

They had named it Phragmipedium kovachii at the request of the man who brought it to them, orchid collector Michael Kovach of Goldvein, Va. Federal agents searched Kovach’s nursery and last month the grand jury indicted him on charges of smuggling and illegally possessing the rare orchid.

He declined to comment Wednesday.

“It’s not a good idea to name an orchid after anybody who brought it into the country illegally,” Hansen said.

Kovach bought the ladyslipper orchid at a remote truck stop in Peru. He knew the minute he saw it that it was unlike any other ladyslipper: a tall stalk topped with a bloom as big as a man’s hand, its petals a hot pink shading into deep purple.

His mentor, a swashbuckling plant collector from Miami named Lee Moore, told him he had found “the Holy Grail of orchids.”

At Moore’s urging, Kovach packed the orchid in his suitcase, flew to Miami and drove the plant to Sarasota. When he carried it into a roomful of experts at Selby Gardens, he was greeted by “a simultaneous wave of eye-widening and mouth opening,” Kovach wrote in an orchid-collector newsletter.

Every year hundreds of collectors consult Selby’s experts on the proper identification of the species they find. Higgins, in an e-mail to orchid enthusiasts last year, said Selby’s experts never checked whether the collectors had the proper paperwork.

When Kovach brought them his stunning find, they focused instead on rushing into print the first scientific description of the species, a move that would bring international acclaim for Selby among orchid circles.

In a 2002 interview with the PBS program Nova, Higgins called the flower “spectacular.” He “scrambled to put together a team of three experts to write a Latin description of the new phragmipedium,” the show reported.

The mustachioed Higgins is a familiar face at Florida orchid shows, where he frequently works as a judge. Retired from the U.S. Coast Guard after 26 years, he earned graduate degrees in horticultural science and botany. His specialty is plant identification and classification.

According to Kovach’s account, Higgins was aware another plant identification expert, a disgruntled former Selby employee named Eric Christenson, was rushing to get a description of the orchid into print.

Kovach wrote that Higgins told him “a race for access to the plant had developed. He said it looked like I had won that race.” Selby beat Christenson into print by five days.

Christenson cried foul, as did Peruvian authorities. Kovach had brought the orchid out of Peru without getting the permits international law require for trade in endangered species, a law that covers ladyslipper orchids.

Christenson contended such illegal conduct is commonplace among botanical gardens, because until now the law was never enforced.

“Everybody takes this as a joke,” he said Wednesday. Seeing Selby charged “is just glorious news.”

Times staff writer Graham Brink and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.