Two Idaho men avoided lengthy prison terms Monday as a federal judge handed down sentences as part of the government's investigation into illegal harvesting of marine life from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary for the saltwater aquarium trade.
Idaho Aquarium Inc. operator Ammon Covino, 40, accepted a plea agreement with Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald that called for a year and a day in prison and two years probation in exchange for a guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act.
As part of his sentence, Covino will never be allowed to purchase, sell, import, export or otherwise be involved in the wildlife trade.
He had faced a maximum of five years in federal prison and fines of up to $250,000.
Covino delivered an emotional apology to U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez in which he begged to be allowed to serve probation and avoid prison altogether.
"I would give my right hand," Covino told the judge. "I would let you cut off my right hand."
He added that the experience of his arrest had "humbled him to his knees," and he began to apologize to his family -- he has a child due in April -- when the judge cut him off: "That's who you should be apologizing to the most," Martinez said.
"If more people who commit crimes saw what their family goes through beforehand, we would all be better off," the judge said. "You certainly do owe them an apology."
Covino's co-defendant, Christopher Conk, also 40, who also was an operator of Idaho Aquarium Inc., also was sentenced as part of a plea agreement. Martinez sentenced Conk to four months in prison, followed by four months probation. Conk was also forever banished from the wildlife trade as part of his sentence.
Prosecutor Watts-Fitzgerald told Martinez that Conk was less culpable than Covino.
Conk, an Idaho native, told the judge he "hurt a lot of people," but had an awakening of sorts when he first visited the Keys to appear in court.
"This is a beautiful place," Conk said. "I'd never been anywhere other than Idaho and Utah, and I had no idea what this place was like. It's beautiful."
The judge also cut Conk off: "It won't be beautiful for much longer if people keep stealing sharks and other wildlife."
Both Covino and Conk pleaded guilty in September.
Martinez added that the defendants' conduct "strikes to the very heart of this area and the economy of this area."
The government alleges Covino spearheaded an operation with Conk to buy $6,300 in lemon sharks and spotted eagle rays from Eric Paul Pedersen, 51, and Serdar Ercan, 42, of Grassy Key.
Pedersen and Ercan both previously pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and face a maximum of five years in federal prison, up to three years of supervised release, and fines of up to $250,000 when they are sentenced today at the Sidney M. Aronovitz federal courthouse, 301 Simonton St., Key West.
They harvested and sold many different live coral and shark species from Keys waters from 2010 to 2012.
The men operate a company called Key Marine Inc., based on Grassy Key, which is just north of Marathon.
Neither had the required state or federal permits for their business activities, according to court records.
The Lacey Act makes it a federal offense to import, export, transport, sell or purchase in interstate commerce any wildlife protected at the state level.
It's the same law used to prosecute myriad Keys defendants in the lobster casita cases in recent years.