- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

NORFOLK (AP) — Millions of dollars worth of clothing imported illegally into this country has been uncovered as a result of stepped-up security at the port of Hampton Roads after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The U.S. attorney’s office last week won a default judgment in federal court over 36,864 men’s casual shirts worth nearly $1 million. Customs agents seized the garments, which were shipped on a container vessel, in the summer after determining that their entry into the U.S. market would violate trade agreements.

The shirts were discovered after agents in Norfolk confiscated more than 112,000 wind-suit sets valued at $2.3 million from incoming ships in June.

“In general, our number one priority is terrorism,” said Mark Laria, port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security. “But one of the legacy responsibilities under the Department of Homeland Security is enforcing the trade laws.”

In court, the government argued that failing to uphold trade agreements and quotas “threatens the health of the whole U.S. economy.”

However, officials also fear that an enemy could plant a deadly device in a container full of clothing sent to a U.S. port.

“While the FBI considers the threat of a terrorist attack on ports to be low, the vulnerability of those ports remains high,” the Congressional Research Service said in a December 2003 report.

Rand Europe, a homeland security think tank, concluded that year that the shipping industry remained “wide open” to a terrorist attack.

Government officials say security has improved since those reports were issued, pointing to the clothing seizure as an example of better monitoring.

“We want to be pretty aggressive,” said U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty, but he added that resources have not increased significantly.

The Hampton Roads clothing action began in May, with a tip from Russian officials that a shipment of wind suits had phony documents.

The paperwork indicated the clothing was made in Russia, which is not subject to trade quotas, but a customs investigation determined that the clothing was manufactured in China, which is subject to U.S. quotas, according to court records.

In all, customs officials seized four shipments of wind suits and one load of shirts. The U.S. attorney’s office then filed suit in federal court seeking forfeiture of the items.

The wind suits were headed to ES Apparel Group, an importer in Manhattan’s garment district, according to the lawsuit.

“As a result of the seizures, my company is in imminent danger of bankruptcy,” ES Apparel President Ezra Shalam said in a court affidavit.

But ES Apparel agreed in September to pay a $10,000 penalty and export three of the shipments to another country. The company was allowed to keep the fourth shipment.

Omega Apparel, the importer involved in the seizure of the men’s shirts, never responded to the government’s forfeiture action, according to court records. With the default order granted March 21, the government can either auction the shirts to an exporter or send them back.

Customs officials could not say whether seizures have increased since the September 11 attacks, but they are relatively rare. In 2002, the last year for which figures were available, 24 confiscations were made nationwide of a wide range of goods.

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