A Florida husband and wife, Noel and Kelsy Hernandez Quintana, pleaded guilty to conspiring to import plywood contrary to the Lacey Act and customs laws, and to selling plywood products that were illegally imported and sold.
Noel Quintana also pleaded guilty to one count of smuggling and one count of violation the Lacey Act. Kelsy Quintana also pleaded guilty to two counts of violating the Lacey Act. The total loss of duties owed on the illegally imported wood products was approximately $42 million. The plywood’s market value was between $25 million and $65 million.
According to court filings, the Quintanas incorporated seven companies in the United States – naming relatives or friends as corporate officers and agents – and these shell companies imported hundreds of shipments of plywood products into the United States between February 2016 and December 2020. The Quintanas also incorporated a financial shell company through which they accepted payments from purchasers for the plywood they imported in violation of laws, including the Lacey Act and customs laws.
Before April 2017, the Quintana’s importing shell companies imported containers of plywood into the United States and almost exclusively declared them to be hardwood plywood imported from China. But after April 2017, the companies evaded applicable duties by falsely declaring their hardwood plywood imports from China to be either the product of another country or to be made with a species of wood not subject to duties.
“Today we hold defendants accountable for their intentional circumvention of customs laws: to avoid paying duties, defendants repeatedly violated the law, refining their schemes each time one was exposed,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “This is not simply a financial crime – accurate import declarations protect U.S. markets from dumping by foreign countries and deter illegal harvesting of plants.”
When importing plant products, the Lacey Act requires filing a declaration which contains, among other things, the plant’s scientific name and its country of origin. Under the Lacey Act, it is unlawful to transport or sell a plant product knowing it or the plant it was made from was transported in violation of any plant-related law. Customs laws prohibit false statements in any import declaration without reasonable cause to believe the truth of such statement. It is also illegal to import merchandise contrary to law, including the Lacey Act.
According to the plea agreement, softwood plywood – regardless of country of export – carried a general duty of 8%, with a few duty-free exceptions, such as if the outer ply was made from Parana pine. Antidumping and countervailing duties of more than 200% applied to hardwood plywood manufactured in China after approximately April 2017.
To avoid paying duties, the Quintana’s shell companies falsified import declarations for hardwood and softwood plywood. For example, a declaration from July 2018 said plywood in three containers was manufactured in Russia. But the containers were manufactured and loaded in Qingdao, China, and transported to Port Everglades, Florida, through the Panama Canal, without ever stopping in Russia. After federal authorities stopped such a shipment through Panama, the Quintanas used a different tactic to evade duties by shipping Chinese-produced hardwood plywood to Malaysia, then transferring the wood to new containers to be shipped onward to the United States. This change of containers was intended to better conceal that the plywood originated from China.
The Quintanas also falsely declared some shipments of softwood plywood to be duty-free Parana pine, which allowed them to evade the 8% general duty on these imports.
Additional court filings reflect that, after being alerted to the possibility of prosecution for their illegal acts, the Quintanas fled the United States initially to Panama and then to Montenegro, where they were the subject of extradition proceedings.
The couple pleaded guilty to conspiring to import plywood in violation of the Lacey Act and customs laws and conspiring to sell the illegally imported plywood. Noel Quintana also pleaded guilty to one count of smuggling and one count of importing plant products without filing a declaration including the scientific name and name of the country from which the plants were taken. Kelsy Quintana also pleaded guilty to two counts of importing plant products without filing a declaration including the scientific name and name of the country where the plant was harvested.
Noel Quintana faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for count three as well as five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each of counts one and six. Kelsy Quintana faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each of counts one, five and six. Both face forfeitures up to $42 million. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 12, 2024.