Phrag. Kovachii Mop-Up News

Finally, the last of the mopping up of the Phragmipedium Kovachii debacle. Last January I reported that Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and its top horticulturalist, Wesley Higgins (head of the orchid identification center) had to take their licks for their role in smuggling a specimen of this new discovery into the U.S. to be identified. The government of Peru and former Selby employee Eric Christenson, were already in the process of identifying what’s been described as the greatest orchid discovery of the last 100 years. But Selby beat them to it, thereby pissing off a lot of people.

Michael Kovachs actually got off fairly lightly, with two year’s probation and a $1,000 fine.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Merryday, of Tampa, told Kovach, of Goldvein, Va., he narrowly escaped doing prison time.

"I’m resolving some doubts in your favor owing to your status as a
first offender," Merryday said. "But some of your explanations here are
very nearly, ‘The dog ate my homework.’"

Sadly, George Norris — who got caught in the crossfire — did get prison time. Rabid U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials, on the hunt for illegal importers of Phrag. Kovachii, caught George in a scheme to fudge paperwork on other, artificially propagated, orchids. They figured he was trading in Phrag. Kovachii because his supplier was one of three growers in Peru with a legal permit to cultivate them. Nope. But he was an easy fall guy — elderly, bellicose, and unable to afford a good lawyer, apparently.

As for the fabulous orchid, it was stripped from the wild by poachers as soon as word got out that it existed.

Eric Hansen, who wrote Orchid Fever, "An extraordinary, well-told tale of botany, obsession, and plant politics" (U.S.A. Today), may want to start thinking about that sequel.

Continue reading “Phrag. Kovachii Mop-Up News”

Martha Ain’t the Only One

Well, the verdict is in, and George Norris got jail time:

Flower Dealer Get 17 Months for Smuggling

MIAMI —  An orchid dealer was sentenced Wednesday to a year and five months in federal prison for scheming to smuggle prized tropical lady slipper orchids into the United States.

George W. Norris of Spring, Texas, was also sentenced to two years probation. Co-defendant Manuel Arias Silva, a Peruvian orchid grower, pleaded guilty in June and was sentenced in July to a year and nine months in prison.

Norris instructed Arias to ship through south Florida because federal inspectors at Miami International Airport were more lax than their counterparts in Houston, according to papers and e-mails seized in the investigation.

The investigation was based on a tip about Norris offering endangered species for sale on the Internet.

The Peruvian lady slippers are considered seriously endangered in the wild and are protected by international treaty. Nursery-raised varieties can be exported with government permits.

Norris and Arias used invalid permits for the shipments and falsely labeled many of the plants to cover up the lack of a valid permit, prosecutors said.

The forums are silent so far. It would be interesting to know if any new evidence came out of the court proceedings, or if in fact it’s just another example of the American justice system’s overenthusiasm for incarceration. Is there anyone left on the outside in that country? Well, I’m very sorry for Mr. Norris and  Mr. Arias. They made a mistake by trying to take some short cuts to get around nonsensical regulations (endangered species? always read the news with a healthy dose of scepticism). I hope the feds are pursuing real poachers with the same enthusiasm.

Norris Orchid Saga continues

I’ve written extensively here about the drama surrounding George Norris and Manuel Arias Silva’s troubles with the law. Both are elderly and in ill health, and from what I can gather from those “in the know”, they are not big bad orchid smugglers guilty of stripping the wild of rare orchids species, but victims of a complicated web of petty politics, egos, and treachery. Oh, and of their own frustration with nonsensical CITES laws. Apparently, the orchids they “smuggled” were not rare, and were removed from the list of prohibited trade species after their shenanigans. The question remains as to whether the plants in question were collected from the wild, or cultivated at Jose’s nursery in Peru.

Orchid smuggler from Spring gets prison time

03:17 PM CDT on Tuesday, July 27, 2004
Associated Press

MIAMI — A prominent Peruvian orchid grower was sentenced Tuesday to almost two years in federal prison for scheming to smuggle prized tropical lady slipper orchids into the United States.

Manuel Arias Silva will spend one year and nine months in prison for shipping internationally protected wild orchids intermingled with nursery-raised flowers to a Texas dealer several times to feed the desires of high-end hobbyists from 1999 to last year.

U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz sentenced Arias to the low end of the federal guidelines on his guilty plea to two counts. He admitted shipping 2,050 orchids, including the endangered Phragmipedium species, worth $45,500 from Peru through Miami to suburban Houston.

“Judge Seitz did the best and the fairest she could under the circumstances,” said defense attorney Peter Raben.

The dealer, George W. Norris of Spring, Texas, also has pleaded guilty and faces sentencing Sept. 2. The investigation was based on a tip about Norris offering endangered species for sale on the Internet.

Norris instructed Arias to ship through South Florida because U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors at Miami International Airport were more lax than their counterparts in Houston, according to papers and e-mails seized in the investigation.

Arias, 70, was one of three Peruvian growers with permission to cultivate endangered and newly discovered orchids from recently deforested areas. He apologized in a letter to the judge asking for mercy and noting his “sincere” conservation efforts.

The Peruvian lady slippers, known as “phrags” in collecting circles, are considered seriously endangered in the wild and are protected by international treaty. Nursery-raised varieties can be exported with government permits.


Link:, news for Houston, Texas

This post contains an interesting quote from someone who personally knows the Manuel Arias Silva. She says that he is an honourable gentleman, 70 years old and in extremely ill health, who could not speak the language and had a wife at home in Peru who had just undergone a serious operation. Given the situation, he was anxious to plead guilty to whatever the authorities wanted, just to get back home. He has not returned to the U.S., so it will be interesting to see whether the U.S. tries to extradite him and force him to serve his jail term.

American Justice

This is sad…. George Norris (see my post of March 30th for the background story) has pleaded guilty to smuggling orchids into the U.S., no doubt because he is old, in ill health, and couldn’t afford the legal fees to fight the charges. The article makes him out to be a bad guy, but, unless there’s some shocking new evidence, he’s just a crusty old guy who tried to take a short-cut to get around some (universally agreed) nonsensical CITES import rules. Now he faces up to 5 years in jail for each of the seven counts, as well as huge fines.

Texan pleaded guilty to orchid smuggling charges

The forums are overpoweringly silent on the subject, so far. In a classic case of shutting the barn door after the horse has escaped, the Orchid Source Forum has moved all conversation regarding George’s case to a password-protected area, so that he can vent his spleen in semi-private. I’m sure his online piss and vinegar on the Orchid Source Forum didn’t win him any friends with the US Fish & Game people.

What’s sad is that I remember George as a loud right-wing supporter of the Bush Administration, the invasion of Iraq — patriotic to the point of arrogance, quick to take offence at any seeming slight of his beloved country and government. All this on an orchid forum!!! I take no pleasure in seeing how this proud man has been reduced, humiliated, and betrayed by a system and country he so loves. Bad news.

Online Orchid Drama Eclipses Reality TV…

George Norris, a crusty old orchid grower from Texas, has yet again found himself squarely in the sights of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the Department of Homeland Security.

George, along with his business associate Peruvian grower Manuel Arias-Silver, is charged with conspiracy to smuggle endangered phragmipediums (orchids) into the U.S. Since Manuel is one of only three growers to have been given permission by the Peruvian government to artificially propagate the newly discovered phragmipedium Kovachii, it appears that the U.S. government has singled out the pair for special attention over suspicions that this is the species they were smuggling. There appears to be little evidence of this, though it is likely the pair were taking some shortcuts on paperwork because of the challenges of importing other, legally propagated species, into the U.S.

In the orchid world, the CITES treaty is almost universally denounced; the charge is that it does nothing to stop habitat destruction, and actually encourages illegal smuggling of wild-collected plants because the regulations make it so difficult to trade in artifically-propagated specimens.

George originally found himself in his government’s crosshairs last year, after sending out a newsletter to his customers mentioning the Peruvian government’s decision to allow three respected Peruvian growers to propogate the orchids, raising the possibility that they would be available legally for sale in the United States within the next few years. Considering that his information came directly from Manuel, with whom he had done business many times, the newsletter reference was not unreasonable. However, Eric Christenson, the taxonomist who was still severely disgruntled over losing the race to name the species, was one of the recipients of the newsletter. He forwarded the message on to the F&WS suggesting they investigate the “rumours”. A couple of months later, the F&WS raided George Norris’ greenhouse. Then, Manuel was arrested by authorities on his way to a major international orchid show in Miami on March 5th. The F&WS, strongly criticised by the orchid community for their heavy-handed tactics, released the contents of private email they secretly intercepted between the two men to the media, in an apparent attempt to garner favourable public opinion.

Support continues to be strong for George and Manuel, but the situation looks grim for the two men. An outspoken and “patriotic American”, George’s growing sense of betrayal and disillusionment with his beloved right-wing government has been painful to behold. The obvious stress is taking it’s toll, resulting in a particularly spectacular flame-war on the Orchid Guide Digest list between Eric Christenson (“I will begin immediate legal action against [the Orchid Digest List] for allowing this filth on your website”) and George Norris (accusing Eric of hot air and eating too many Krispy Kremes). It’s an online version of the worst kind of reality TV, kind of like watching a train wreck in slow-motion.

Then, just when the name-calling and threats were threatening to take over the entire tone of discussion, along comes Oliver Sparrow to the rescue, like the orchid super-hero he is….

Phrag. Kovachii: Christenson Speaks

Big orchid society meeting today – the guest speaker was Eric Christenson, the taxonomist at the centre of the Phrag. Kovachii drama. For some reason I imagined he would be a small, studious-looking man in khaki shorts, knobby knees, a giant safari hat and round spectacles, but as it turns out he was more of a cross between Paul Bunyan and a motorcycle gang member. An extremely large man, he was as wide as he was tall, with a full beard, bad haircut, and easy way of speaking in front of a large audience. He had a sort of charm, and certainly, his long and academic presentation on oncidiums was far more interesting than it deserved to be. Especially considering that it was supposed to be talk on phragmipediums.

He did get around to the Phrag. Kovachii (excuse me…. Phrag. Peruvianum) saga at the end of his speech. It was a very perfunctory description of events leading up to Mr. Kovach’s indictment (maximum $300G fine and 6 years in prison) and Selby’s plea bargain down to a fine of $5,000 and a promise to apply themselves toward the reversal of the name “Phrag. Kovachii” in favour of “Phrag. Peruvianum”. It was clear from his expressions of pity that Mr. Kovach’s was just a bit player in a clash between Christenson and Selby. While he seemed dismissive of Kovach’s arrogance in calling attention to himself by demanding that the plant be named ‘Kovachii’, Mr. Christenson reserved his special contempt for Selby Botanical Gardens — a former employer — and appeared gleeful at his own contribution to Selby’s humiliation, who, he claimed, deserved everything they got. Interestingly, Mr. Christenson talked about the “Son of Sam” law in the United States, whereby no one can profit from a criminal act, and offered up his fervent desire that no book be published on the incident using the name “Phrag. Kovachii” as a result of these legal proceedings. While I’m sure Mr. Christenson felt himself to be on the right side of justice (“the Peruvian government will be pleased”, he claimed), I’m sure I detected more than a little bruised ego underlying his sentiments.

I was puzzled by Mr. Christenson’s openess about the future of Phrag. Kovachii in general distribution. A few months back, the mere suggestion that the plant would be available for sale legally within a couple of years had him so concerned that he passed along the intelligence to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their action. Today he was quite frank in describing the sad irony that Mr. Kovach would be doing prison time for a plant that would be widely available for cultivation in a couple of years. Odd. I’m sure the Florida grower, George Norris, who originally mentioned this possibility in a client newsletter that he forwarded to Mr. Christenson, would be glad to know that though his business was raided by federal agents as a result, it’s all common knowledge now.

Considering all the unsympathetic and self-interested characters in this drama, there is one player that has my attention and admiration: The Peruvian government. It seems that they are taking an active role in demanding full control over the future distribution of the species, and have demanded that every single specimen that has been removed from the country be returned. While this contributes nothing to the preservation of the species in-situ, I can’t help but admire a country that stands up for itself against representatives of bigger and more powerful countries who are accustomed to waltzing in and laying claim to whatever they find of value. A nice show of courage and national pride, especially in this day and age.

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.