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Tarpon merchant was fined before

A customs official testifies in a smuggling trial that a shipment bound for Petros Leventis' shop in 1984 contained illegal coral.

A Tarpon Springs shop owner accused of smuggling rare coral and shells into the United States faced similar accusations more than 15 years ago, a U.S. Customs official testified Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

Petros "Pete" Leventis was fined $500,235 after 696 boxes of illegal coral were found in a shipment bound for his shop on the Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs in 1984.

Marcy Forman, a U.S. Customs Service official, testified that an invoice for the shipment labeled the cargo as 1,000 pieces of rattan furniture.

"That was absolutely false," Forman said.

Leventis is facing six counts of federal smuggling charges in a trial that began Monday. Federal authorities say Leventis violated import laws in 1997 and was part of a conspiracy to smuggle rare coral and shells from the Philippines.

Leventis' attorney, Frank Louderback of St. Petersburg, has argued that Leventis was unaware that he was receiving illegal items in a shipment that arrived in July 1997 from Esther T. Flores, an exporter in the Philippines.

Louderback said that when Leventis became aware of the banned coral and shells, he notified his broker, who acts as an intermediary with Customs.

"I don't want to end up in prison as a smuggler because of you," Leventis wrote to Flores in a fax that was admitted as evidence in the trial.

Leventis also told Flores in another fax that he never agreed to purchase the illegal coral and shells. Louderback said that Leventis had asked to buy coral and shells, but only if the items were legal.

The coral and shells in question are protected by a 1975 international agreement called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It was created to protect species from extinction by outlawing or limiting their sale.

The items, which people use to decorate aquariums or display as curios, may be imported only with a permit from the government of the country where they were collected.

The containers in the 1997 shipment were incorrectly labeled as containing marine animals that did not resemble the coral and shells found inside.

The U.S. Department of Justice claims that Leventis, 68, knowingly violated the international agreement and has a history of import violations, including false documents that misidentify the cargo in his shipments.

Peter J. Murtha, an attorney for the Justice Department's Environmental and Natural Resources Division, showed jurors pictures of the 1984 shipment that arrived in Houston and was supposed to be carrying rattan furniture, according to the shipment's invoice.

One of the pictures used as evidence in the trial showed the back of a truck tightly packed with furniture. But according to Forman, one of the federal agents who investigated the shipment in Houston, the tightly packed furniture was just a facade for boxes and crates of prohibited coral.

Leventis' fine of $500,235 was later reduced to $9,699.

Murtha has also told jurors about a shipment in 1983 that arrived in Miami with similar prohibited items.

Leventis, who owns Greek Island Imports Inc. in Tarpon Springs, was born in Greece and has become a U.S. citizen. Although he can understand some English, a woman sits beside Leventis in court translating the trial from English to Greek.

The trial, thought to be the first of its kind in the country, will continue Wednesday.