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Dealer sentenced in orchid scandal

Michael Kovach receives two years' probation and a $1,000 fine for transporting the endangered flower from Peru to the United States.

CRAIG PITTMAN
Published November 2, 2004

TAMPA - To Michael Kovach, it was a public service. By carrying a spectacular orchid out of Peru and bringing it to a Sarasota botanical garden, he guaranteed that the new species would be protected as endangered.

But a federal prosecutor painted a darker picture Monday. She said Kovach was part of what seemed "an awful lot like a conspiracy" to loot rare orchids from the wild and sell them to collectors.

After more than three hours of legal arguments, U.S. District Judge Stephen Merryday sentenced Kovach, 49, to two years' probation and a $1,000 fine. Merryday warned the Virginia orchid dealer that he narrowly escaped prison.

"I'm resolving some doubts in your favor owing to your status as a first offender," the judge said. "But some of your explanations here are very nearly, "The dog ate my homework."'

Kovach, a slender man with glasses and a ponytail, hung his head and shook it. Afterward, he and his wife, photographer Barbara Ellison, declined to comment.

"I love these plants," Kovach told the judge during sentencing. Despite the accusations of prosecutor Elinor Colbourn, he said, "I did what I did without any intention of violating any

laws."

For 12 years Kovach, a former carpenter, has been raising orchids at his clapboard house in rural Goldvein, Va., and occasionally shipping them to and from places like Vietnam and Jamaica.

He learned the intricacies of the trade by pestering experts like Miami resident Lee Moore, a swashbuckling figure who has traded orchids, archaeological artifacts and, according to federal authorities, narcotics.

Several South American orchid species are named for Moore because he discovered them. Moore says Kovach once told him, "I wish I could have a plant named for me."

In May 2002, Kovach got his wish.

He and his wife flew to Peru to meet with Moore and Moore's wife. Kovach has said he and Moore planned to start an orchid propagation business there.

Moore denies it, but prosecutor Colbourn mentioned that to the judge as part of her contention that Kovach's motive was money.

Using a driver supplied by Moore, Kovach and his wife ventured deep into the countryside in search of orchids. He later told investigators he planned to stop at one crossroads because he had seen some interesting plants there on a previous visit.

At that crossroads, named El Progresso, he found a flower stand where the vendor "said they had something in the back, and brought this out," Kovach testified in June. "I wasn't sure at first what it was. It was too big, too colorful."

The ladyslipper orchid had never been named by scientists. It had a bloom as big as a man's hand, its petals a dramatic pink shading into deep purple. He paid $3.60 for three of them, at a time when Colbourn said they were $10,000 on the black market.

When Kovach later showed the flower to Moore, Moore told him it was "the Holy Grail of orchids." Moore told him to take it to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota to get it identified.

Wild orchids are protected by an international treaty that 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.

Kovach had followed the rules on previous collecting trips, but this time he did not. He later told U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Mary Holt that he didn't want to wait for the permit. He was eager to get to Sarasota.

On June 4, 2002, Kovach visited Selby Gardens with his ladyslipper. Selby's stunned orchid experts agreed to publish a scientific description of his flower, naming it for him: Phragmipedium kovachii . They issued a news release calling it the most spectacular orchid discovery in a century.

Peruvian authorities complained that Kovach had broken the law and demanded the plant back. Armed federal investigators went to both Kovach's home and Selby Gardens with warrants.

The charges and subsequent notoriety tarnished both Selby and Kovach, who saw his orchid business dry up. On June 11, Kovach pleaded guilty to a count of illegal possession of an endangered species and a count illegal trade, both misdemeanors.

Selby became the first botanical gardens ever to be charged with a crime. Gardens officials agreed to three years' probation and a $5,000 fine. Selby had to take out a full-page apology ad in an orchid magazine and write to the international body in charge of scientific names for species, urging that Kovach's name be taken off the orchid. One of its experts got a $2,000 fine and two years of probation, six months of it on home detention.

Meanwhile A piece of the plant Kovach had left at Selby, which was taken to Vermont by a Selby researcher, was confiscated as evidence by wildlife officers. It's still in the hands of the U.S. Botanical Garden in Washington, D.C., Holt said.

So far, Peru has not gotten it back.

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