- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 27, 2002

The president of Beluga Caviar Inc. pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court to conspiracy in a smuggling scheme in which couriers were paid to bring into the United States suitcases filled with caviar in violation of 1998 international restrictions designed to protect sturgeon.

Viktor Tsimbal, 41, pleaded guilty to conspiracy, smuggling and money laundering charges contained in an indictment returned in June by a Miami grand jury. He faces up to 30 years in prison on four counts of conspiracy and smuggling and one count of money laundering.

Tsimbal, a Russian national, also forfeited $36,000 in his possession on his arrest at Miami International Airport and could be sentenced to pay up to a $1 million criminal fine. Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 6 before U.S. District Court Judge Federico A. Moreno in Miami.

"Caspian Sea sturgeon may have been around since the age of dinosaurs, but the appetite of smugglers for profit has the potential to extinguish them from the Earth," said Assistant Attorney General Tom Sansonetti, who heads the Justice Department's environmental and natural resources division.

"Recent prosecutions have shown that the caviar trade is rife with corruption, which will result in the inevitable collapse of sturgeon populations absent vigorous enforcement," he said. "The Justice Department is dedicated to enforcing the laws designed to protect and preserve them from the threat of extinction."

Justice Department officials said Tsimbal orchestrated a conspiracy in which smugglers were paid approximately $500 for each trip and were provided airline tickets, prepacked luggage filled with black-market caviar, and apartment and hotel rooms in Europe and Miami.

They said Tsimbal used bank accounts in Europe to launder the illicit profits. In pleading guilty, Tsimbal also admitted he encouraged an employee to lie to the grand jury.

According to papers filed in court, the investigation began after Tsimbal offered to sell sturgeon caviar with false labels stating that the contents were "Atlantic Lumpfish Roe" an unprotected species. Special agents executed a search warrant at Tsimbal's business and seized more than $500,000 worth of caviar along with the false labels.

Tsimbal said yesterday the lumpfish labels were part of an overall scheme to continue to use false documents to smuggle caviar into the United States after a number of couriers had been arrested.

He also admitted to using false documents to smuggle more Beluga caviar from Russia into the United States via Poland in 1999 than the entire Russian export quota for the year, according to a detailed factual statement filed in court.

Justice Department officials said sturgeon are a species of prehistoric origin that can live up to 100 years. Because the time necessary to reach egg-bearing age can be up to 20 years and the fish are killed in the process of obtaining the roe that is salted to make caviar, the fish are especially vulnerable.

The officials said a major threat to the survival of the sturgeon is the trade in black-market caviar smuggled from Russia and other Caspian Sea nations.

In 1998, sturgeon were listed as protected under an international treaty, and their importation into the United States required an export permit issued by the country of origin.

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