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Verdict in coral case expected Monday

Merchant Petros Leventis is accused of violating federal import laws. His lawyer says he was just confused by the complicated rules.

A jury must now decide whether Tarpon Springs merchant Petros "Pete" Leventis was a "shameless profiteer" who knowingly imported banned coral or an honest businessman who was unaware of the rules.

Lawyers made their closing arguments Friday in the federal smuggling case against Leventis, who owns Greek Island Imports Inc.

Prosecutors charge that Leventis, 68, violated import laws and was part of a conspiracy to transport illegal goods from the Philippines through exporter Esther Flores.

They portrayed Leventis, who sells decorative shells and coral from a gift shop on the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, as the "man who refused to learn." They said he refused to comply with a 1975 international agreement that was enacted to protect wild flora and fauna by outlawing or limiting their sale.

"Time after time after time he has received notification of what the law is and has failed to comply with it," said Peter J. Murtha, an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department's Environmental and Natural Resources Division.

The shells and coral in question may be imported only with a permit from the government of the country where they were collected.

But it isn't as simple to understand the law as it may seem, argued Leventis' attorney, Frank Louderback of St. Petersburg. The Philippines temporarily lifted its ban on coral exports, making it difficult for Leventis to tell when they were allowed. And Flores, the exporter in the Philippines who often sent Leventis shipments, never told him that the coral he was buying was illegal, Louderback said.

"He's as confused as anyone else in this business, and the government hasn't shown otherwise," Louderback said.

The jury is expected to deliver a verdict Monday.

Just before the closing arguments, Leventis, who is from Greece, finished his testimony in the case, which began Monday. He knows some English but was aided by an interpreter throughout the trial.

Murtha hinted that Leventis is not really like the man who was standing trial, a man who often said he could not remember or did not know the answers to the questions the defense asked. Murtha said Leventis was able to communicate in English during phone calls to witnesses in the case as well as operate as a "savvy businessman."

But the defense denied charges that Leventis was part of a conspiracy. Louderback said Leventis never handled documents, trusting that Flores knew and was abiding by the law.