Controversy over orchid settled with guilty plea

Finally, this is settled! Lots of politics involved in this one, but I guess the fellow just wanted to get it over with.

Facing felony charges in a smuggling case involving Selby Botanical Gardens, Michael Kovach pleads guilty to lesser charges.


Controversy over orchid settled with guilty plea

Facing felony charges in a smuggling case involving Selby Botanical Gardens, Michael Kovach pleads guilty to lesser charges.

Published June 11, 2004

TAMPA – Two months after Michael Kovach discovered a rare Peruvian orchid, armed federal agents showed up at his door in Virginia.

In what quickly escalated into an international controversy, the New York Times, Washington Post and People magazine wrote about how Kovach could wind up behind bars for smuggling the protected flower into Miami.

On Thursday morning, in a nearly empty federal courtroom, Kovach pleaded guilty to reduced charges, and the judge overseeing the hearing suggested he might avoid prison altogether.

Kovach, who has criticized federal wildlife officials for prosecuting him as a smuggler, told the judge he just wanted to get the matter settled.

“There’s a lot of questions about this case in my mind, but it’s resolution time,” Kovach told U.S. Magistrate Judge Stanley Wilson.

Kovach had originally been indicted on a felony count of smuggling an endangered species and a misdemeanor count of illegal possession of an endangered species.

In exchange for his guilty plea, the U.S. Justice Department reduced the felony to a misdemeanor count of illegal trade.

Wilson, in discussing sentencing options during the hourlong hearing in Tampa federal court, suggested Kovach might wind up on probation instead of in jail.

No sentencing date has been set. The misdemeanor charges each carry a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $100,000 fine.

The ladyslipper orchid at the center of the case carries Kovach’s name, at least for now. Kovach, an orchid collector from Goldvein, Va., found the dazzling flower at a roadside stand at a rural crossroads named El Progresso in the Andes Mountains in late May 2002.

The Peruvian vendor “said they had something in the back, and brought this out,” Kovach told the judge. “I wasn’t sure at first what it was. It was too big, too colorful. It didn’t fit the description of other orchids in that family.”

The ladyslipper Kovach bought that day was one that had never been named by scientists. His discovery had a bloom as big as a man’s hand, its petals a dramatic pink shading into deep purple. He paid $3.60 for three of them.

Later Kovach showed the flower to his mentor, orchid collector Lee Moore, who told him “you’ve got the Holy Grail of orchids.”

Kovach gave Moore two of the orchids and stashed the third in his suitcase for a flight to Miami.

That’s where he got into trouble.

Wild orchids are protected by an international treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. It prohibits collecting endangered plants in the wild for export. Trade is permitted only if the exporting country certifies the plants were grown in a nursery or laboratory.

All ladyslipper orchids are on the treaty’s most-endangered list. Moore, in an e-mail Thursday to Kovach and Kovach’s attorney, Bob Hearn, wrote that there was no getting around the fact that Kovach had recognized the flower as a ladyslipper.

During Thursday’s hearing, though, Kovach told the judge that he was “under a mistaken impression” that he did not need a permit for an orchid that had not yet been officially named. He also blamed his lack of fluency in Spanish.

On June 4, 2002, Kovach showed up at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota. Selby’s stunned orchid experts agreed to publish a scientific description of his flower, naming it Phragmipedium kovachii.

Orchid expert Eric Christenson, a former Selby employee, said sticking Kovach’s name on the plant was tantamount to telling federal authorities, “Hey, come arrest me!”

Sure enough, Peruvian authorities complained that Kovach had failed to get the proper permits, and in August 2002, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service searched both Kovach’s nursery and Selby Gardens. Federal agents also confiscated a piece of Kovach’s plant that one of Selby’s experts had taken home to Vermont to try to get it to take root.

After a yearlong investigation, a Tampa grand jury indicted Kovach in November 2003. Two months later, federal officials also charged Selby Gardens and one of its orchid experts, Wesley Higgins, with illegally possessing the ladyslipper.

Selby, the first botanical garden ever charged with a federal wildlife crime, pleaded guilty and agreed three years’ probation and a $5,000 fine.

Selby had to take out a full-page ad in an orchid magazine apologizing for its role in the case. And Selby officials had to write to the international body in charge of scientific names for species, urging that Kovach’s name be taken off the orchid.

So far there has been no response to that letter, a Selby spokeswoman said Thursday.

Higgins, of Cape Coral, also pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $2,000 fine and serve two years of probation, six months of it on home detention.

– Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.