[OGD] George Norris -- part 2

  • From: viateur.boutot@xxxxxxxxxxxx
  • To: orchids@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 27 Jul 2009 21:05:22 -0400

"In most developing nations, months pass between applying for and receiving 
a CITES permit.
To compensate, orchid exporters request permits early, long before the 
plants are ready to sell.
In that gap between applying for a permit and receiving it, some plants die 
and others thrive.
Phrags became popular in the early 1990s after all of the species in the 
family were uplisted to CITES Article I...

Arias had been breeding Phrags for years from plants that he had legally 
taken from the wild.
But in Peru, Phrags were common and almost worthless.
So in 1998, he turned to the export market.
It would be months or even years, Arias guessed, before he was approved to 
have all of them listed on his permits.

Arias began including Phrags in the price sheets that went to his best 
foreign customers.
Norris ordered a few, along with hundreds of other plants.
On the forms, they were described as Maxillarias, a type of orchid that 
Arias had cleared for export.
Per usual industry practice, he received a separate letter matching the 
names on the permit with the plants' real identities.

Over time, Arias's nurseries received permits and CITES registration to 
grow many of the Phrags he had previously shipped under other names, and as 
that happened, he began labeling them properly in his shipments.
But there were always at least a few in each shipment that were mislabeled 
because he had not yet received the proper permit.
Phragmipedium kovachii.
James Michael Kovach discovered the flower while on an orchid-hunting trip 
to the Peruvian Andes in 2002 and sneaked it back into the United States 
without any CITES documentation to have it catalogued by Selby Botanical 
Gardens' Orchid Identification Center...
Two Selby staff members, recognizing the importance of the discovery, 
rushed out a description of the new flower, christening it kovachii, after 
Kovach, and barely beating into print an article by Eric Christensen,... 
who had been working from photos and measurements taken in Peru.
Everyone wanted it...

The orchid fever was... heightened by the legal drama that... engulfed 
Selby Gardens and Kovach as a result of the find. The Peruvian 
government... pressed U.S. authorities to investigate for CITES violations.
Eventually, criminal charges were brought against Kovach, Selby Gardens, 
and its chief horticulturalist, Wesley Higgins.
All pleaded guilty, receiving probation and small fines.

Right after he heard about the kovachii, Norris contacted Arias to press 
for information about the flower, especially when they would be available 
for sale.
With illegal trade in the flower already flourishing, Arias figured that he 
could get the right permits to collect a few from the wild for artificial 
Doing it legally could take a year or two, maybe even three.

Norris was more optimistic and ran with the information in his next 
catalog, boasting that he would have legal kovachiis for sale in a year, 
perhaps less--far sooner than anyone else thought possible.
That caught the attention of an orchid researcher who had long believed 
that the U.S. orchid trade was overrun with illegal plants, threatening the 
survival of many species in the wild.
there had been only one prosecution to date for dealing in illegal orchids.
He decided to take a closer look at Norris's spring orchid specialties and 
brought Norris to the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Around that time, a new customer placed an order for four Phrags and 
specifically asked Norris to include the CITES permits for the flowers.
It was an unusual request.
Usually, the Department of Agriculture inspectors took the permits at the 
port of entry for their records.
Except for the few times that shipping brokers made copies, Norris hardly 
ever received them with plant shipments. Assuming that the request was just 
a misunderstanding, he shipped the plants with a packing list but no permits.

Several days after the orchids were delivered, Norris received another 
e-mail from the buyer, asking again for the permits.
The Department of Agriculture had them, Norris responded, but he would try 
to get a copy.
That, thought Norris, was the end of the matter.
The buyer made another order for more Phrags a year later and again asked 
for the permits.
Once again, Norris shipped the flowers without them.

Unknown to Norris, the buyer in these transactions was working with Fish 
and Wildlife Service agents.
Because of the controversy over the kovachii, the Service had a newfound 
interest in orchids.
That informant's two transactions with Norris would serve as the basis for 
the raid on Norris's home.
The raid occurred in October 2003, but George Norris was uncertain of his 
fate for the next five months, receiving no communications from the 
On the advice of friends, he wrote a letter to the Miami-based prosecutor 
who was probably overseeing the case, explaining that he had never imported 
kovachiis--this was at the time that others were being charged for 
importing the flower--and asking for a meeting to answer any questions.
At the very least, he asked, could the government tell him what he was 
suspected to have done?
After a few weeks, his computer was returned, broken, and Norris resumed 
business as best he could, taking orders and showing off his plants at shows.

Meanwhile, Fish and Wildlife Service Agents were poring over the records 
retrieved from Norris's home, as well as others obtained from the 
Department of Agriculture.
There was no evidence that Norris had ever obtained or sold a kovachii, but 
the agents did notice minor discrepancies in the documents.
Some of the plants Norris had offered for sale were not listed on any CITES 
Among those missing were three of the 10 Phrags in the informant's second 
The agents also found Norris's correspondence with Arias... which seemed to 
confirm their hunchNorris had been engaged in a criminal conspiracy to 
skirt CITES and violate U.S. import laws.

Norris's business slowly recovered but suffered a devastating blow when 
Manuel Arias Silva was arrested in Miami one day before the Miami Orchid 
Show in March 2004.
After that, everyone assumed that Norris would be next.
Norris and his wife scrambled to sell Arias's flowers (mostly Phrags, by 
now properly permitted) at the show, earning just enough to pay his 
expenses and get him out of jail.
With no one else to step in, they guaranteed Arias's $25,000 bail and 
$175,000 personal surety bondHe was now their responsibility.
Rumors raged that Norris would be arrested on the floor of the show.

But it was another week before Norris was indicted.
There were seven charges
one count of conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act,
five counts of violating CITES requirements and the ESA, and
one count of making a false statement to a government official, for 
mislabeling the orchids.
Arias faced one additional false-statement charge.

On March 17, 2004, Norris and his wife flew to Miami, where he voluntarily 
surrendered to the U.S. marshals.
The marshals put him in handcuffs and leg shackles and threw him in a 
holding cell...

The next day, Norris pleaded not guilty, and a day after that, he was 
released on bail.
The Norrises returned to Spring, Texas, to figure out their next steps.
Their business was destroyed; their retirement savings and home were on the 
line for the Peruvian orchid dealer who was now living in the spare 
bedroom; and Norris, 67 and in frail health, faced the prospect of living 
out his days in a federal prison.
Still, Norris believed he had not done anything wrong and would win out in 
the end.

So they made a go of fighting the charges.
Norris hired an attorney who, with most of his experience at the state or 
county level, quickly found himself in over his head with the complexities 
of international treaties, environmental law, and the intricacies of a 
federal prosecution.

In April, the attorney accompanied Norris to what turned out to be a 
proffer meeting, at which defendants are typically offered the opportunity 
to cooperate with the government in exchange for leniency.
Norris had not been told what to expect and did not have anything to say 
when prosecutors asked what he was willing to admit.
They peppered him with names of other orchid dealers, but Norris was not 
inclined to inform on them--not that he knew enough about their operations, 
in any case, to offer anything more than speculation.

After that, Norris got a more experienced--and much more expensive--attorney.
With bills piling up and the complexity of the case and the resulting 
difficulty of mounting a defense finally becoming apparent, Norris took the 
step he had been dreadingchanging his plea to guilty.
"I hated that, I absolutely hated that," said Norris.
Five years after the fact, the episode still provokes pain, his face 
blushing and speech becoming softer.
"The hardest thing I ever did was stand there and say I was guilty to all 
these things.
I didn't think I was guilty of any of them."
While Norris and his wife were focused on his case, Manuel Arias Silva was 
plotting his own next moves.
By mid-May, he had managed to obtain a new passport and exit visa from the 
Peruvian Consulate.
On May 19, soon after they had returned to Texas from a hearing in Miami, 
Kathy Norris received a call from Juan Silva, in Peru, who was in tears.
His father, he explained, had returned home to evade the charges against 
him in the United States.
The Norrises would be on the hook for Arias's bail and bond--nearly $200,000.

Based on Norris's transactions with Arias... the government recommended a 
prison sentence of 33 to 41 months.
Such a lengthy sentence was justified, according to the sentencing 
memorandum, because of the value of the plants in the improperly documented 
Two choices pushed the recommended sentence up.
First, the government used Norris's catalog prices to calculate the value 
of the plants rather than what he had paid for them.
Second, it included all plants in each shipment in its calculations, 
reasoning that the properly documented plants--by far the bulk of every 
shipment--were a part of the offense because they were supposedly used to 
shield the others.

On October 6, Norris was sentenced to 17 months in prison, followed by two 
years of probation.
In the eyes of the law, he was now a felon and would be for the rest of his 
Norris reported to the federal prison in Fort Worth on January 10, 2005;
was released for a year in December 2006 while the Eleventh Circuit Court 
of Appeals considered a challenge to his sentence; and then returned to 
prison to serve the remainder of his sentence.
Prison officials, angered by Norris's temporary reprieve, threw him in 
solitary confinement, where he spent a total of 71 days.
He was released on April 27, 2007.
George Norris has lost his passion for orchids.
The yard behind their home is all dirt and grass, nothing more.
The greenhouse is abandoned.
Broken pots, bags of dirt, plastic bins, and other clutter spill off its 
shelves and onto the floor.

A dozen potted plants grace the Norrises' back porch; three or four are... 

The couple's finances are precarious.
Neither Norris nor his wife knows how they will face retirement with all of 
their savings used to pay legal expenses. Arias's bond hangs over their 
heads as well, and the government has said that it will seek to enforce it.
That threat keeps Kathy up at nights.
She doesn't know what else they could give up, other than the house, or how 
they could possibly come up with the $175,000 still owed.
But the hardest blow, explains Kathy, has been to their faith in America 
and its system of criminal justice
George Norris...
don't sleep like I used to; I still have prison dreams... It's utterly 
wrecked our lives."
George Norris... crime... was a paperwork violationHe had the wrong 
documents for some of the plants he imported but almost certainly could 
have obtained the right ones with a bit more time and effort.
Neither he nor other dealers ever suspected that the law would be enforced 
to the very letter so long as they followed its spirit.
As controversy roared over the kovachii and prosecutors were gunning for a 
high-profile conviction to tamp down sales in truly rare and endangered 
plants, Norris bragged that he would soon have the extraordinary flower in 

To this date, he has never seen one."

URL : http://www.heritage.org/Research/LegalIssues/lm0044.cfm



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