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A whiff of scandal

The orchid was incredibly beautiful and exceedingly rare. But in its allure lay the seeds of destruction for the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and those who were seduced by the lust for a flower.

CRAIG PITTMAN
Published November 2, 2003

SARASOTA - Each year more than 160,000 people stroll through Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and are dazzled by its spectacular orchid collection, from showy Cattleyas to delicate Paphiopedilums.

But the most important orchid in Selby Gardens' history is not on display.

It's the one that could wreck the place.

When orchid collector Michael Kovach first spotted it at a roadside stand in Peru, he knew he had never seen anything like it: a tall stalk topped with a bloom as big as a man's hand, its petals a hot pink shading into deep purple.

As Kovach carried that dazzling flower into a roomful of Selby Gardens' scientists in June 2002, he was greeted by "a simultaneous wave of eye-widening and mouth opening," Kovach wrote in an orchid-collector newsletter.

Selby's staff moved quickly to lay claim to the honor of naming the new orchid. Working around the clock, they cranked out a scientific description and published it in a special edition of Selby's own journal.

At Kovach's request, they named the plant after him: Phragmipedium kovachii.

The announcement, hailed as one of the biggest orchid discoveries in 100 years, garnered international acclaim for the 13-acre institution on Sarasota Bay.

Making the triumph even sweeter was the fact that Selby had beaten into print a rival orchid expert who was on the verge of publishing his own scientific description of the new species.

But the taste of triumph soured.

Peruvian officials lodged a formal complaint. Two months after he walked into Selby Gardens with the orchid, Kovach's greenhouse in Virginia was raided by federal agents. They rooted through Selby Gardens' records, too. A federal grand jury in Tampa has subpoenaed a dozen Selby employees and board members.

As the yearlong investigation draws to a close, Selby is likely to be charged with violating laws designed to protect endangered plants from poachers. Selby's staff believes prosecutors will make an example of them to placate Peru, said Selby's crisis management consultant, Jeffrey Tucker.

A criminal conviction could bring large fines and the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money. Individuals could even face jail time. Attorneys' fees already are squeezing the garden's $3.2-million budget.

"It's a real mess," said Paul Martin Brown, author of Wild Orchids of Florida. "It tarnishes Selby's reputation."

The orchid scandal has so exacerbated tension among Selby's leadership that the executive director and eight board members have resigned. Furious donors are withholding contributions.

Selby officials are "all kind of shocked at how they got into the middle of this," Tucker said. They had nothing but the best of intentions, he said.

To Eric Christenson, the rival beaten by Selby, none of this is surprising. He says Selby's staff should never have let Kovach in the door.

"These people are idiots," he said. "Everyone involved knew it was illegal."

* * *

How could so much trouble stem from a single flower? To Lee Moore the answer is obvious.

A veteran orchid collector whose business cards identify him as "The Adventurer," Moore advised Kovach in Peru. He says Kovach's craving for fame overrode concerns about legalities.

"Oh, the cost of fame," said Moore, chuckling.

Kovach (pronounced KO-vack), 48, lives in rural Virginia. Once a carpenter, he says God led him to the orchid business.

It was a heavenly calling into a hellish obsession.

While most orchid fanciers are content with the selection at Home Depot, a few are willing to blow $10,000 on one plant or brave any hardship to discover a new species.

Orchid Fever author Eric Hansen blames the flowers' sensual form. The tumescent blooms and intoxicating scent can cloud a collector's judgment.

Driven by passion, some orchid fanciers would spend their last dime for a flower such as the one Kovach found.

"When a man falls in love with orchids, he'll do anything to possess the one he wants," Norman McDonald wrote in his 1939 book The Orchid Hunters. "It's like chasing a green-eyed woman or taking cocaine, it's a sort of madness."

But such madness may run afoul of the law. Wild orchids are protected by an international treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. It prohibits collecting endangered plants in the wild for export. Trade is permitted only if the exporting country certifies the plants were grown in a nursery or laboratory.

Few orchid experts like the treaty's rules, Brown said, and some would like to get rid of them. Thousands of orchids can be destroyed by a new road but collecting a few for scientific study can be nearly impossible.

One orchid expert, Guido Braeme, punched out a customs official who accused him of smuggling. Still, Braeme was fined because he had no export permit for an orchid preserved in alcohol since 1822.

According to Braeme, the rules are particularly maddening when the orchid is newly discovered. To get a permit to export it for study requires listing a name, but at that point there is no name.

"You smuggle or you cheat," Braeme explained. "Legally you can't win."

Still, botanical gardens continue to describe new species from other countries, Braeme said, suggesting they were all "based on illegal plants."

Christenson, Kovach's rival who used to work for Selby, says he quit when he was ordered to write a grant proposal for propagating an illegally obtained orchid.

"Everyone treats it with a kind of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink," Christenson said. "This is what all botanical gardens are doing."

Selby's own rules require permits for plants shipped to its Orchid Identification Center. But so many orchids are sent to Selby "the Gardens does not require the submitters to provide documentation as to the sources of the plants," center director Wesley Higgins wrote last year.

Moore says in all his years of shipping orchids to Selby, "nobody ever said boo about permits."

So Moore says he advised Kovach to put his orchid in a suitcase and head for Selby without a permit.

"I know he's supposed to have a permit . . . and he knows that very well, too," Moore said. But Moore said he told Kovach: "Take the (expletive) thing up there to Selby. If you try for a permit, you'll never get a permit."

* * *

Moore has spent 25 years traipsing around South American jungles, collecting pre-Columbian art and new orchid species. Several are named for him.

In The Orchid Thief, author Susan Orlean quotes Moore's Peruvian wife, Chady, as saying, "We were always smuggling something. . . . We had more going on, more situations than Indiana Jones! Oh, my God!"

The Moores live in Miami but are building a nursery near the Peruvian city of Moyobamba. In 1996, flying back to Miami, Moore met Kovach. They started talking orchids and friendship blossomed.

"He told me once, "Lee, you're famous because you've got a lot of plants named for you. I wish I could have a plant named for me,' " Moore recalled.

Last year, they agreed to rendezvous in Peru. In an orchid-collector newsletter published this summer, Kovach wrote that he went there to "discuss setting up a species production facility," using the Moores' nursery. He said they cut a deal. Moore denies it.

On May 26, 2002, Kovach hired the Moores' driver to take him orchid hunting. About 3:30 p.m., Kovach wrote, they stopped at a place the map called El Progresso, actually just a truck stop.

Farmers were selling orchids in the parking lot. Kovach picked out a few from a young brother and sister. The woman offered to fetch some special plants from behind the building.

"She then quickly reappeared cradling three pots containing plants with large dark rose flowers," Kovach wrote. "They appeared to be slipper orchids of some kind, but I'd never seen anything like this."

Kovach says he bought all three for $3.60 each.

When Kovach showed them to his mentor later, Moore was stunned at their beauty. He remembered Kovach's hankering to have an orchid named after him. He says he told Kovach, "This is your chance. You've got the Holy Grail of orchids."

* * *

In the Garden of Eden, Adam named everything. These days it's more complicated. There are strict rules on publishing new scientific names, and only certain taxonomists can do the naming.

The American Orchid Society's list of approved taxonomists consists of just 23 experts, none in Peru. Last year, five were affiliated with Selby, more than any other botanical garden.

Selby's experts knew about the orchid before Kovach arrived on June 5, 2002. A Texas grower had e-mailed them photos he had seen. They had also heard that Christenson had penned a description for Orchids magazine, to be published June 17.

Kovach wrote that Higgins, the center director, told him "a race for access to the plant had developed. He said it looked like I had won that race." As a result, Selby beat Christenson into print by five days.

Christenson had wanted to name the new orchid Phragmipedium peruvianum as a salute to Peru. He based his description on photos that had been e-mailed to him by a Peruvian nursery owner, because all ladyslipper orchids are on a most-endangered list.

"Anyone with half a brain cell doesn't go near them," Christenson said. "They're the pandas of the orchid world. . . . When somebody shows up with an orchid like that, you either quietly tell them to go away or you call the cops."

Selby's experts did neither. Kovach's newsletter account makes no mention of anyone asking him for permits. But in a December 2002 letter to federal authorities, Selby's attorney wrote: "Kovach advised Selby Gardens staff that he had legally imported the orchid into the United States and subsequently provided Selby Gardens with certain USDA permits and Peruvian certificates to support them."

After Selby's scientists accepted Kovach's flower they asked him what to call it, and he told them to use his name.

"I thought, well why not? I've worked long and hard; it can't hurt," Kovach wrote.

Christenson says naming it kovachii was tantamount to saying, "Hey, come arrest me!"

Three months later U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers raided Kovach's greenhouse. Then they hit Selby with a grand jury subpoena.

Kovach contends he didn't need a permit because he wasn't transporting the orchid for commercial purposes, an argument experts don't buy.

"His claim is nonsense," said Ned Nash of the American Orchid Society.

Selby's legal problems are more complicated.

Kovach left the orchid at Selby Gardens. After Selby's scientists finished, they shipped it to a museum in Peru without a permit.

"In the strictest sense of the word, they broke the law," Nash said.

They also did not send back the entire plant.

As the scientists stood around Kovach's orchid "it began striking everyone that this was the last they were going to see of this," said Tucker, Selby's consultant. "It was taken from a high altitude in Peru and it was not going to survive in Sarasota. And someone said, "Why kill the last condor?' "

So one Selby expert, John Atwood, took a piece to his home in Vermont to see if it would grow, Tucker said. Federal officials have now confiscated it.

Selby officials were caught off guard by the investigation. Then-director Meg Lowman, a rain forest biologist who wrote a critically acclaimed memoir called Life in the Trees, was not even in town when Kovach showed up with his orchid.

But she became the orchid's first casualty.

For two years Lowman was the target of repeated sniping from Selby's chairman, a prominent orchid grower named Bob Scully who four years ago was banned from Selby's greenhouses over complaints of sexual harassment and other problems.

According to Lowman's attorney, Robert Rivas, Scully was informed by Selby's experts about Kovach's orchid the day after it arrived, and he "enthusiastically endorsed" rushing the news into print, even meeting with the orchid experts to discuss it.

When Selby's board learned of the federal investigation, board members asked Scully to deal with it, said former board member Bob Richardson.

"We were always hopeful this thing was going to blow away," Richardson said. "It just kept escalating as time went on."

Tension among board members escalated, too. For Richardson, the last straw came when "we were sitting in a meeting with the board and Scully was saying he thought Meg hadn't told the truth about what happened."

Richardson quit. He had pledged $100,000 to Selby, but plans to give it to Lowman for her legal defense. Then Lowman was forced out, along with board members who supported her. Several have vowed to withhold donations worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In Peru, the government posted fliers in the airports warning against smuggling the new orchid. But collectors stripped the site where Kovach's three plants came from, and the plants are selling for $1,000 each in Europe, said Harold Koopowitz, editor of Orchid Digest.

Five months ago, though, Koopowitz saw 1,000 more growing on a remote cliff in the Andes. Their best protection is their location. Getting to them, Koopowitz wrote, required making what he called "the hike from hell."

One person who hopes to profit from this is The Adventurer. When Kovach flew to Selby he left two of his orchids with Moore, who later paid local farmers to gather about 200 more for his nursery. The Moores now await the day when trade in them will be legal and lucrative.

Most people connected to the case declined to comment. Kovach, who initially was talking to the New York Times, Washington Post and People, now refuses all interview requests as he awaits the grand jury's decision.

"My life is ruined," he told People. "The bottom line is, it's just a flower. Everybody's lost their mind."

- Times staff writers Graham Brink and David Adams and researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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