Selby’s takes the low road

I had to laugh at this quote from Selby’s in response to criminal charges against Kovach for orchid smuggling:

“I think that pretty well proves that the garden is quite innocent of any wrongdoing except in accepting the orchid to identify it…(Selby’s stated) last year that Kovach produced the proper paperwork upon his arrival and that ‘we would have kicked him out’ if he didn’t have it.’ (They) also said that Selby does not check or verify papers. “

Wow, there’s a spectacular display of hypocrisy. Selby’s knew very well there was no way the orchid could have been brought in to the U.S. legally, thanks to the convoluted logic of CITES regulations. In their rush to get their names consigned to posterity, they forgot to cover their posteriors.

Grand jury indictment handed down in Selby orchid debacle

Herald Tribune
By TOM BAYLES
tom.bayles@heraldtribune.com
Bilde
SARASOTA — A Virginia nursery owner who brought a rare orchid to the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of smuggling the plant into the country.

The grand jury in Tampa last week indicted James Michael Kovach on charges of smuggling and illegally possessing a rare Peruvian orchid now named for him: Phragmipedium kovachii.

Kovach, 48, has not been taken into custody. If convicted of the felony charge of smuggling and the misdemeanor charge of possession he will face up to six years in prison and fines of up to $350,000.

The feds are also in negotiation with Selby’s board of trustees over the garden’s punishment for accepting the orchid in June 2002, and then naming it a week later.

Barbara Hansen, chairwoman of the board, said Thursday that Kovach’s indictment clears the non-profit research center along U.S. 41 of most of the blame in the matter.

“I think that pretty well proves that the garden is quite innocent of any wrongdoing except in accepting the orchid to identify it,” Hansen said.

The indictment is the latest in a string of challenges facing Selby. Several key staffers have quit in recent months including Shawn Farr, the man hired in May to stabilize the gardens. Farr cited disagreements with Hansen and other board members.

More than a half-dozen board members have quit and several large donors have withheld their contributions over the board’s firing in July of Meg
Lowman, Selby’s popular director since 1999.

Former board member Bob Richardson has also asked local and state officials to look into the current board’s handling of the gardens’ affairs and whether there are enough trustees left to legally run the place.

In the orchid world, Kovach’s orchid has been described as the most spectacular find in 100 years.

Federal investigators have charged that Kovach brought the orchid into the United States in violation of the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species treaty.

The treaty is intended to keep threatened plants and animals from being spirited out of the wild.

Kovach found the flower in May 2002 while on an orchid-collecting trip in Moyobamba, a city in the high jungles of northeastern Peru.

Kovach’s discovery wasn’t the result of years of hunting; he bought the plant in a pot from a roadside flower stand. Moyobamba, population 95,000, capital of the sprawling San Martín province, is also known as “The Orchid City” because of its abundance of flowers and its thriving orchid trade.

Still, as a commercial nursery owner, Kovach knew what he’d found. The flower, sort of a peachy color with patches of purple, was at least twice as
big as any “lady slipper” orchid anyone had ever seen.

Kovach flew back to the States and went through U.S. Customs in Miami. He declared he had plants and was whisked through. Kovach headed straight for Selby, where, on June 5, he met with Dr. Wesley E. Higgins, head of the orchid identification center, and Dr. John T. Atwood, then Selby’s orchid curator.

Higgins still works at the gardens, but Atwood left last year.

It’s unclear what, if any, paperwork was produced when Kovach showed up.

Lowman told the Herald-Tribune last year that Kovach produced the proper paperwork upon his arrival and that “we would have kicked him out” if he didn’t have it.

Lowman also said that Selby does not check or verify papers.

Hundreds of amateurs stream through Selby every month seeking to have their orchids identified, she said, and checking paperwork is akin to
law enforcement work for which Selby is ill-suited.

Orchid growing is big business. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are more than 700 orchid growers in the United States with sales topping $100 million annually.

When a new orchid is found, there is prestige waiting for whoever publishes the discovery first. And according to internationally accepted rules of
plant nomenclature, the first to publish a description of a species gets to name it.

Selby, after a marathon session of writing, research, description and peer review via Internet, published a brief description in a special handout on June 10, 2002. The handout’s tiny circulation didn’t meet accepted standards for publication, though.

Two days later, just a week after Kovach dropped off the flower, Selby published its description in a special edition of its journal “Selbyana,” which did meet the requirements.

A woman who answered the phone Thursday at Kovach’s home in Goldvein, Va., declined to comment and hung up.

Selby’s light-speed naming of the orchid beat out Eric A. Christenson, a former Selby taxonomist who was working to name the same plant.

Christenson said Thursday that he feels that Selby got caught up in a trend in the orchid community of playing loose with the rules.

“Selby wouldn’t be in the trouble it is today if it hadn’t taken baby steps toward this,” he said. “It’s kind of indicative of a system gone wrong.”

Christenson said he harbors no ill will to those who remain at Selby, but that there is no way anyone could have thought they would get away with any
involvement in smuggling a high-profile orchid into the country.

“These people are idiots,” he said. “It’s way too high profile to get away with. And they didn’t.”

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.

Canada has it’s own Phrag scandal too

Ahh, how refreshing to hear of orchids hijinx closer to home, this time concerning Phragmipedium tetzlaffianum

Canada has it’s own Phrag scandal too!!

$2500 penalty and conviction for illegally exporting orchid

ST. THOMAS, ON, Sept. 26 /CNW/ – Allan Norman Tetzlaff pled guilty in the
Ontario Court of Justice, St. Thomas, Ontario, to illegally exporting a rare
and endangered species of orchid from Canada to Germany via the United States
and England. Mr. Tetzlaff was ordered to pay a total of $3,125 for this
infraction. This represents a fine of $2,500 plus a 25% victim surcharge of
$625.

Allan Tetzlaff, resident of Port Stanley, Ontario, was charged by
Environment Canada under section 6(2) of the Wild Animal and Plant Protection
and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act. It is alleged
that the orchid, now named “Phragmipedium tetzlaffianum”, was unknown at the
time and was smuggled out of Canada for the purpose of identification. The
offence occurred in October 2000 but did not come to the attention of wildlife
officers until January 2003.

Environment Canada’s wildlife officers were alerted to the export of the
orchid via a complaint which alleged that Mr. Tetzlaff openly boasted of his
efforts to illegally smuggle the plant to Germany while conducting a
presentation to orchid enthusiasts in western Canada.

This species of Phragmipedium orchid is believed to have originated in
Venezuela. These orchids are listed as rare and endangered species (Appendix
I) in the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild
Fauna and Flora (CITES). Trade and movement of this species is strictly
controlled via an export and import permit system.

more…

Phrag. Kovachii discoverer busted

Remember my post of November 12th (“A rat among the orchids”)?

Jury indicts Virginia nursery owner for alleged orchid smuggling:

“After a yearlong investigation, a Tampa grand jury indicted James Michael Kovach on charges of smuggling and illegally possessing a rare Peruvian orchid now named for him: Phragmipedium kovachii.

If convicted, Kovach could face up to six years in prison and fines of up to $350,000.”

Here’s the full text of the article:

Jury indicts Virginia nursery owner for alleged orchid smuggling”.
Associated Press

One of the most prized orchid discoveries in years has led to a federal smuggling indictment of the Virginia nursery owner who brought the flower into Florida.

After a yearlong investigation, a Tampa grand jury indicted James Michael Kovach on charges of smuggling and illegally possessing a rare Peruvian orchid now named for him: Phragmipedium kovachii.

Kovach, 48, has not been taken into custody. His mentor, Miami orchid expert Lee Moore, said Kovach was unaware of the Nov. 19 indictment. A woman who answered the phone Thursday at Kovach’s home in Goldvein, Va., declined to comment and hung up.

If convicted, Kovach could face up to six years in prison and fines of up to $350,000.

The indictment against Kovach marks the first criminal charges in the investigation, launched soon after Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota trumpeted Kovach’s find in June 2002.

“It’s a rich, brilliant red purple. Big, round, well-shaped – it apparently has no odor – and one flower per stem seems to be the rule,” the gardens’ curator described the new find at the time.

The indictment said Kovach, transported, concealed and sold one or more protected orchid specimens, specifically of the genus Phragmipedium, commonly known as Tropical lady’s slipper orchids. Those species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Although the indictment says Kovach’s documents did not include the required permits for endangered plants, former Selby employee John Atwood said, “we were satisfied his paperwork was in order.”

According to an account Kovach wrote for an orchid collector newsletter, he spotted the new species at a roadside stand at a crossroads called El Progresso, near Myombomba in northern Peru.

Moore called it “the Holy Grail of orchids.” He said he advised Kovach to take the discovery to Selby without the special permits required to ship rare and endangered flowers across international borders.

Kovach flew to Miami with the orchid in his luggage and drove to Sarasota on June 5, 2002. There, according to the indictment, Selby employees “accepted one or more” specimens from Kovach and agreed to name it for him.

Information from: St. Petersburg Times, http://www.sptimes.com

Rare orchids blossom but can never be sold in hills of Guatemala

Here’s a heartbreaker of a story, another example of CITES gone wrong.

A landowner and coffee grower in a remote area of Guatemala has a nursery (vivero) of over 600 varieties of rare and beautiful orchids that are indigenous to the area. Now, because of financial difficulties and counterproductive laws, the future of the nursery and the orchids in it is bleak.

“The irony for Mr Mittelstaedt is that, because of restrictions, he cannot sell the orchids and might have to close the vivero. ‘The law which is designed to save our natural flora from plant smugglers is also preventing us from selling what we’ve grown ourselves,’ he said.”

“When coffee prices were good it didn’t matter because it subsidised the vivero but now the market has collapsed the whole area is suffering.”

“Now most of that forest is gone. The biggest threat to the orchids is deforestation. It breaks my heart to see how much has been cut over the years. We only want to sell what we grow ourselves, but the timber mafia just come in and cut down the trees that belong to everybody. This is what globalisation means for Guatemala.”

A rat among the orchids….

This is the flower that has brought down an entire institution, that has U.S. federal agents intercepting and reading private email, that has an elderly couple in the U.S. terrorized after a raid at gunpoint to seize their life’s work from a backyard greenhouse: Phragmipedium Kovachii.

This huge slipper orchid was discovered in May 2002 by an American named Mike Kovach, who found it on sale at a roadside stand in a remote corner of Peru. It was the most important orchid discovery in 100 years, but in order to make it official, a complete description had to be written up by a taxonomist who is authorized to name new plants, and the results published.

Mr. Kovach, eager to see his name preserved for posterity, took a specimen back to the U.S. and presented it to Selby Botanical Gardens (who has five such experts on staff) for identification. Selby’s, eager for the prestige associated with naming this new plant, overlooked the fact that there was no way it could have arrived there legally; Phrags. are a protected species and in order to get the proper permits to export them, CITES regulations require documentation that it wasn’t collected from the wild, including the name of the plant. A bizarre catch-22 situation.

A disgruntled ex-employee of Selby’s, Eric Christenson, who is also a respected taxonomist, was also aware of the plant. He had been shown pictures and was working with contacts in Peru to describe it, and publish his results. He planned to call it “Phrag. Peruvianum”. Selby’s, figuring that the race was on, rushed to publish their results and beat Christenson to it by a matter of weeks.

Christenson was bent on revenge, and called the wrath of the Federal Fish & Wildlife service down on Selby’s. Raids, fines, serious jail time seem to be imminent for the board. To add to their misery, Selby supporters who are counted on for big donations are holding on to their cheques in protest of Selby’s unsportmanlike behaviour. Oops.

Enter George (“the Old Wrangler”) Norris, who’s home and greenhouse was raided and ransacked by the Fish & Wildlife service in October. The Fish & Wildlife Service had obtained a search warrant on the basis of a personal email they had intercepted two years earlier, in which a crackpot offered to smuggle in some plants for George. The warrant conveniently omitted George’s reply telling him not to bother, he wasn’t interested.

Perhaps the most alarming element of this drama is the evidence that George’s private email was intercepted and used against him. Apparently, if you send or receive an email with the words “phragmipedium” and “Peru” in it, your message will end up in the hands of some sinister secret agent whose job it is to sit in a dark room and violate your privacy.

The story continues. Smelling a rat, fellow orchid growers did some sleuthing, and they turned up an interesting email message of their own.

In late July this year, George forwarded an Orchid Society newsletter entitled “SOS UPDATE, NEWSLETTER, GOSSIP SHEET AND EARLY TICKLER” to Eric Christenson as a friendly gesture. Unfortunately, among its news, gossip, and offerings the newsletter also contained an innocent (or naive) remark by George that “it is also possible that we may have some very legal Phrag Kovachii (complete with good CITES documents) after the first of the year.”

Christenson, determined to “grind this axe right down to its handle”, forwarded the message to Marie Holt, a Fish & Wildlife service agent, with the note,

“I just thought that you should know that the rumors are starting that legal plants of this species are a possibility.

I hope that the Federal Grand Jury looking into the role of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in the smuggling of this CITES Appendix I plant goes well.”

In mid-October, George’s greenhouse was raided.

Ha! The plot thickens. This will eventually make a great book, but I have a feeling there will be more twists and turns before this story is over.