Judge issues sentence in USVI coral smuggling case

AP News
Posted: Feb 07, 2013 6:50 PM

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands (AP) — The former president and CEO of an upscale jewelry manufacturing company was fined nearly $1 million Thursday for smuggling black coral into the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Ashu Bhandari also was ordered to spend one month in jail, complete 300 hours of community service and pay nearly $230,000 to the University of the Virgin Islands for projects to research and protect black corals, the U.S. Justice Department said.

The sentence marks the end of one of the largest federal cases involving illegal trade in wildlife.

Bhandari pleaded guilty in November to one count of false classification of goods to hide shipments of internationally protected black coral that his former company, Gem Manufacturing Inc., received from Taiwanese suppliers.

Bhandari was the last defendant to be sentenced in a case that spawned a three-year investigation that also sent two of his business partners to prison.

Ivan and Gloria Chu of Taiwan-based Peng Chia Enterprise Co. Ltd. pleaded guilty in 2010 to illegally importing black coral as part of a plea deal. Ivan Chu agreed to serve 2 1/2 years in prison and pay a $12,500 fine, while Gloria Chu agreed to serve 20 months and pay a $12,500 fine.

In 2011, Bhandari's company was ordered to forfeit dozens of jewelry items, sculptures and more than 13,600 pounds (6,000 kilograms) of raw black coral. Together they were worth about $2.17 million.

Gem Manufacturing also was ordered to pay a nearly $4.5 million fine, the largest ever at the time for non-seafood wildlife trafficking and the fourth-largest for any U.S. case involving illegal trade in wildlife.

Black coral is an organism that thrives in deep ocean water and grows on rocks like a plant. It can live for hundreds or thousands of years and can be harvested for jewelry and other purposes under strict trade regulations.