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Tarpon merchant guilty of smuggling

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Petros Leventis faces a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on each of three counts.

A Tarpon Springs shop owner was found guilty Monday of smuggling rare coral and shells into the United States, a conviction federal prosecutors say is the first of its kind.

Petros "Pete" Leventis, 68, was convicted of three counts of smuggling after a weeklong trial. He had faced six counts, but was acquitted of three. Jurors deliberated for a day.

The owner of Greek Island Imports Inc. on the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each of the three counts.

The shells and coral in question are protected by an international agreement enacted to protect wildlife from extinction by outlawing or limiting its sale.

"We intend to do our part to eliminate the exploitation of these species and protect the global environment," U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson said in a statement released after the verdict.

Leventis' attorney, Frank Louderback of St. Petersburg, had 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.

"Most assuredly, he will appeal," Louderback said after the verdict.

Leventis, his business and Flores were charged in the November 1998 indictment with conspiracy, smuggling and knowingly violating import laws. Leventis' business was found guilty of the same three counts and faces a maximum fine of $500,000 per count.

Flores can be arrested and tried on the same charges if she travels to the United States or if federal efforts to extradite her succeed.

Leventis and his business were found not guilty of conspiracy to violate smuggling laws and two counts of false labeling.

The case was jointly prosecuted by Peter J. Murtha, senior trial counsel with the U.S. Department of Justice's environment and natural resources division in Washington, and Eduardo Toro-Font, assistant U.S. attorney in Tampa.

"As far as we know, it is the first such case," Murtha said.

The federal investigation began when a shipment to Leventis containing about 350 boxes and packages of coral arrived in Tampa in July 1997. The U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seized the shipment and found banned coral and shells along with other items that were legal.

The containers' labels identified the coral and shells as marine animals that did not resemble what was inside.

The coral and shells, which are used to decorate aquariums or displayed as curios, are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The items may be imported only with a permit from the government of the country where they were collected.

Murtha and Toro-Font revealed in court that Leventis had a history of problems with his imported goods. Customs officials testified that Leventis was fined $500,235 after almost 700 boxes of illegal coral with similar mislabeling were found in a shipment bound for his Tarpon Springs shop in 1984.

The fine was later reduced to $9,699.

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

Leventis, who is free on a $50,000 bond, will be sentenced Nov. 12.