On Monday, Dec. 2, a little more than a week before the new Austin Aquarium is scheduled to open its doors to annual-pass holders, a federal judge in Florida sentenced Ammon Covino, one of two brothers behind the new Northwest Austin aquarium, to a year and a day in federal prison for illegally procuring wildlife to exhibit in the first aquarium he opened, in Boise, Idaho.
After his turn inside, Covino, 40, will be subject to two years of supervised release during which he will be barred from any employment that "involves the possession, display, transportation, exhibition, purchase, or sale of wildlife," according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida.
Covino pled guilty this fall to conspiring to procure illegally from the Florida Keys, for exhibition in the Idaho Aquarium, spotted eagle rays and lemon sharks worth at least several thousand dollars. According to court records, Covino sought to purchase and ship the wildlife without the necessary permits – and when confronted about that by the seller, who reported the encounter to the feds, Covino insisted that the seller just go ahead and provide the animals without the necessary paperwork. "Who gives a shit, man?" Covino asked.
As it turns out, the feds, that's who. Although Covino's attorney asked for a sentence reduction, federal prosecutors weren't having it. Indeed, after his initial arrest in connection with the poaching charges, Covino contacted his nephew, Peter Covino IV, asking the younger Covino with help to "eliminate evidence." That was not an "impulsive reaction to discovering that his criminal conduct had been uncovered," federal prosecutor Thomas Watts-FitzGerald wrote in a sentencing memo filed with the court last week, but one that "is illustrative of [Covino's] underlying character." Ultimately, per the information in Watts-FitzGerald's memo, Covino's sentence was set slightly below the 15-21 months specified in federal sentencing guidelines.
Although the now-convicted Ammon Covino is listed as a managing member of the as-yet-unopened, for-profit Austin Aquarium, his brother Vince Covino told us this fall that Ammon would have no role at the new site, aside from the building of exhibits. "Ammon's actions with respect to the Idaho [s]hark order without a permit are unconnected to Austin Aquarium, which has always had every permit required for our animals," he wrote.
But whether the Austin Aquarium has been operating legally is an open question. According to city officials, the Covinos began building and storing animals at the roughly 22,000-square-foot former Lack's Furniture Store site at 13530 N. Research Blvd. before having permits to do so. Even now, with postings to the aquarium's Facebook page announcing it will open Dec. 12 to annual-pass holders and Dec. 22 to the general public, the facility has not yet been given a certificate of occupancy. Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Covinos have yet to submit a completed application to display otters or fur seals, federally-protected mammals that they intend to show (the aquarium's website lists them as "expected May 2014"). A preliminary application has been filed, but it contained errors that need correcting, USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said in an email.
For more, see the Newsdesk, Wed. Dec. 4.
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