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Icebrand Foods' president accused of smuggling millions in Chilean sea bass into U.S.

The head of companies accused of smuggling Chilean seabass and rock lobsters from South Africa to the United States for at least 15 years was held Wednesday on smuggling charges, prosecutors said. An indictment in U.S. District Court in Manhattan accused Arnold Maurice Bengis and four other men, including two who live in Maine, of conspiring to smuggle goods into the United States by bribing South African authorities and lying about their fish trade.

The head of companies accused of smuggling Chilean seabass and rock lobsters from South Africa to the United States for at least 15 years was held Wednesday on smuggling charges, prosecutors said. An indictment in U.S. District Court in Manhattan accused Arnold Maurice Bengis and four other men, including two who live in Maine, of conspiring to smuggle goods into the United States by bribing South African authorities and lying about their fish trade.

Prosecutors said they were seeking the forfeiture of $11.5 million, the amount the defendants allegedly earned from the conspiracy.

Bengis, 67, a South African and U.S. national with residences in Manhattan, Bridgehampton, N.Y. and Cape Town, South Africa, was arrested in Bridgehampton. He was scheduled to appear in court with an attorney Wednesday afternoon to respond to the charges.

David Bengis, 34, a South African and U.S. national whose relationship to Arnold Bengis was not immediately known, was arrested in Falmouth, Maine, where he lives, and was booked into the Cumberland County Jail. Bengis is president of Icebrand Foods Inc. in Portland.

He is expected to make a first appearance in U.S. District Court today.

The other Maine defendant, Shaun Levy, 38, is a South African national living in Portland.

Neither Maine man was available for comment Wednesday.

Bengis's company flash-freezes whole cooked lobster.

In 1998, he sold about 1 million pounds of frozen lobster. He sold twice that the next year.

His $2 million plant opened in October 1998, and has the capacity to freeze up to 5 million pounds a year.

The company sends frozen lobsters to supermarket chains across the West and Midwest.

Also indicted was Jeffrey Noll, 49, a U.S. citizen, who was arrested in Marietta, Ga., where he lives. Grant Berman, 33, a South African citizen, was arrested in San Diego, where he lives.

The indictment accused Bengis and his co-defendants of smuggling South Coast and West Coast rock lobster and the Patagonian toothfish - also known as Chilean seabass - from the waters off South Africa to the United States.

Bengis operated his fish trade as chairman of Hout Bay Fishing Industries, headquartered in Cape Town, South Africa, and as an executive with control over the finances of Icebrand Seafoods Inc. and Associated Sea Fisheries, two Manhattan companies, the indictment alleged. The phone numbers of the businesses were listed as disconnected Wednesday.

The U.S. government accused Bengis and other executives of the companies of creating an elaborate scheme to illegally harvest large quantities of fish and ship it to the United States.

The scheme was unearthed after South African authorities seized and opened a container of illegally harvested and processed fish in May 2001, prosecutors said.

After that discovery, the defendants tried even harder to dupe authorities by altering or destroying inventory documents, hiding the fish on boats from South African authorities and paying bribes to South African fishing inspectors to get around fishing laws, according to the indictment.

In one instance, the defendants moved large quantities of rock lobster from a Newark, N.J., warehouse to Massachusetts, the government alleged. In another, it added, they tried to dodge U.S. authorities by diverting an illegal shipment destined for New York to Singapore and Hong Kong.

Many of the schemes were designed to evade South African laws written to protect deepwater species by limiting the quantity that can be caught each fishing season.

According to the indictment, the international Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources estimated that the quantity of Chilean seabass harvested through illegal means from 1996 through 1999 was more than twice what was harvested legally.

As a result, the population of the Chilean seabass species has declined, the commission estimates.

Besides the conspiracy charge, the defendants also were charged with 20 separate violations of the U.S. Lacey Act, a law that prohibits the illegal transport of wildlife.

If convicted, the defendants face up to five years in prison on each of 21 counts.

Copyright © 2003 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.