'We come here and you tell me they're shut down for illegal animals?'
BOISE, Idaho - One of the directors of an aquarium in Idaho, who also just recently opened up an aquarium here in Oregon, is facing charges for allegedly conspiring to illegally harvest marine animals in Florida and then bring them to Boise.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Boise confirmed that Ammon Covino, 39, and Christopher Conk, 40, listed as directors on the company's website, were indicted and arrested Thursday.
The two are accused of violating the Lacey Act, which prohibits the trading of wildlife, fish and plants that have been illegally taken or sold. Covino and Conk are scheduled to appear in a Florida court on March 15.
Covino and other partners, including his brother, opened the for-profit Portland Aquarium in Milwaukie back in December. At the time, Covino was excited to begin a new venture in our area and the grand opening attracted a large crowd.
On Thursday, federal agents showed up outside the Idaho Aquarium and the aquarium's Facebook page had the following message for its visitors:
"Due to some unforeseen circumstances, we are closed this morning. We hope to be open later this afternoon, and we will most definitely be open tomorrow. We apologize for any inconvenience and are working as quickly as we can to open back up."
Local residents who visit the Idaho Aquarium were taken aback over the allegations.
"We come here all the time and then now we come here and you tell me they're shut down for illegal animals?" said Boise resident Ryan Deibner. "I'm just like floored - like whoa."
"It's something that you hear on television and something you see other places, but this is Boise, Idaho," said Connie Vanderventer, who lives in nearby Emmett, Idaho. "So no - we don't have things like that here. It does shock me."
Of course, while the indictment does not involve the Portland Aquarium, it does raise questions. We talked to Covino's brother and business partner, Vince Covino, by phone late Thursday and he told us the Portland Aquarium operates above board.
"The Portland Aquarium's animals are legally acquired and fully permitted," Vince Covino said. "The otter and puffin exhibits, for example, are empty because we do not have our permits. We have secured the otters but can't bring them across state lines until the permits go through."
"The report that I heard from second-hand sources at the (Idaho) aquarium is that the person who caught or somehow acquired the lemon sharks off the coast of Florida acquired them illegally," Covino said. "I have yet to find out if Ammon was aware of that. I just don't know."
"My brother has a great passion for the Idaho Aquarium and for bringing in exotic animals," Covino added. "And there's no financial incentive for him to bring those animals in. He doesn't get dividends - it's a non profit organization. So hopefully they'll be able to figure out how it happened and how the animals were acquired and put the proper protocols in place to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Covino said neither his brother nor Christopher Conk, the other man named in the indictment, were in charge of animal acquisition at the Portland Aquarium. Covino added that his brother was only at the Portland Aquarium every few months, and just to check on the equipment.
"He is there maybe once every 90 days, is the plan," Covino said. "He checks on the filters. He set up the filtration system and plumbing and just makes sure things are operational from that standpoint. That's his only role now."
On a side note, the Covino brothers have been planning on opening an aquarium in Austin, Texas, according to a recent news report.
As for Christopher Conk (pictured at right in a photo from a 2012 arrest for DUI), he does have a record involving similar charges.
Conk pleaded guilty in 2011 to illegally shipping protected coral to buyers around the world and was placed on two years probation. He was charged with smuggling, trafficking wildlife and violating the Endangered Species Act.
Court documents allege that the defendants negotiated for the purchase of illegally harvesting spotted eagle rays and lemon sharks from an individual in Florida.
The government states that Covino sought to arrange the eagle rays via text message and was quoted a price of $1,250 per ray March 3. Covino was told that a special permit was required and that it would take some time to secure.
The documents allege that on April 23, Covino sent a text message saying he was unable to obtain the permit and asked whether it was possible he could "sneak" the rays to him in Idaho.
In a phone conversation with the owner of the animals in Florida, court documents allege, Covino responded ... "just start doing it...who gives a sh**, man."
Government officials also say the two directors, despite having the valid permits, wanted to purchase the lemon sharks "on the down low."
The case is being investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.Watch the report from our Boise affiliate, KBOI2