Cal­i­for­nia man ad­mits role in pet med­i­ca­tion scheme

Seven guilty pleas so far in scam brought to at­ten­tion of lo­cal of­fi­cials

Houston Chronicle - - CITY | STATE - By Gabrielle Banks

The lu­cra­tive in­ter­na­tional scam tar­geted the most or­di­nary of house­hold ne­ces­si­ties — flea and tick med­i­ca­tion for pets.

The lat­est break in the wide-rang­ing coun­ter­feit in­ves­ti­ga­tion came this week when a Cal­i­for­nia ven­dor ad­mit­ted to a fed­eral judge he had been ped­dling un­reg­is­tered and smug­gled an­i­mal pes­ti­cides on­line for 15 years, land­ing $2.5 mil­lion in prof­its.

The medical con, with links to Hous­ton and Galve­ston, in­cluded con­spir­a­tors in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the U.S. who dumped fake mer­chan­dise onto un­sus­pect­ing pro­pri­etors at main­stream pet shops in every state, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral au­thor­i­ties and court doc­u­ments.

Seven men have now owned up to their in­volve­ment and en­tered guilty pleas in fed­eral courts in Hous­ton and Los An­ge­les, but one al­leged ma­jor sup­plier re­mains an in­ter­na­tional fugi­tive be­lieved to be in the Cay­man Is­lands.

The anom­aly in this take-down was that fake prod­ucts la­beled with well-known brand names, such as Front­line and Ad­van­tix, en­tered the le­git­i­mate pet phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal mar­ket­place with­out de­tec­tion, said Richard Halver­son, as­sis­tant spe­cial agent in charge at Home­land Se­cu­rity In­ves­ti­ga­tions in Hous­ton.

Halver­son ran the in­ves­ti­ga­tion jointly with

of­fi­cials from the Hous­ton of­fice of the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion branch.

“The prod­ucts that these guys were sell­ing ended up all over the U.S.,” he said. “We were see­ing it pen­e­trate the le­git­i­mate sup­ply chain, on the web, but also big brand name stores had re­ceived some of this prod­uct.”

Dur­ing a five-year in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cers seized $35 mil­lion in prod­ucts of un­known ori­gin with fake la­bels or prod­ucts made for use in other coun­tries that were not cleared for U.S. sales, Halver­son said. He es­ti­mated there were also mil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of prod­ucts that in­ves­ti­ga­tors did not re­cover.

Philip Hilder, at­tor­ney for Lam Ngoc Tran, a Cal­i­for­nia man who was one of sev­eral fake pack­ag­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers con­victed in the case, said the con­spir­acy was fu­eled by greed.

Mo­ti­vated by money

“Other than money, I don’t know what the mo­ti­va­tion would be,” said Hilder, whose client is serv­ing a four-year fed­eral prison sen­tence. “He repack­aged a prod­uct that he knew was not man­u­fac­tured in the states but was un­der the be­lief it was the same prod­uct man­u­fac­tured abroad. He knew that he had vi­o­lated the law and ac­cepted his re­spon­si­bil­ity by not con­test­ing the charge.”

Court doc­u­ments al­lege the mas­ter­minds be­hind the fraud­u­lent flea med­i­ca­tion scheme were Iain Nigel Mackel­lar and Craig Mostert, who were au­tho­rized to buy the drugs for for­eign mar­kets, but they il­le­gally di­verted them to the United States.

Mackel­lar, a U.K. na­tive, is charged in Hous­ton fed­eral court with be­ing a top il­le­gal sup­plier of for­eign­man­u­fac­tured flea and tick med­i­ca­tion and pet pes­ti­cides to U.S. dis­trib­u­tors in a scheme that stretches back to 2008. Among the al­le­ga­tions, Mackel­lar is charged with smug­gling a ship­ment in May 2015 that was de­clared dur­ing a cus­toms in­spec­tion as a do­na­tion for hur­ri­cane re­lief.

Mostert, a vet­eri­nar­ian from South Africa, pleaded guilty in a Los An­ge­les fed­eral court­room to ship­ping for­eign med­i­ca­tion by means of false state­ments and was or­dered to pay $145,000 in for­fei­ture. Mostert and Mackel­lar sold most of the il­le­gal goods to two Cal­i­for­nia men, Sean L. Ger­son and Chris Martin.

Ger­son, who net­ted $2.5 mil­lion from the fake prod­ucts, told a judge in Los An­ge­les on Mon­day that he know­ingly trans­ported and sold pre­scrip­tion Com­for­tis and Ciprofloxacin meant for South African con­sumers to an un­der­cover of­fi­cer in Mis­souri in Au­gust 2016, af­ter it was smug­gled into the United States.

Other ven­dors pleaded guilty in fed­eral courts in Hous­ton and Los An­ge­les to sell­ing or mass pro­duc­ing the coun­ter­feit pack­ag­ing. Some of their il­le­gal pet medicine was seen on­line by agents, who brought the coun­ter­feit­ing crew to the at­ten­tion of the Galve­ston County Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s Of­fice and fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in Hous­ton.

Dis­man­tling net­work

Pet med­i­ca­tions, in­clud­ing pills and pes­ti­cides ap­plied ex­ter­nally to com­bat fleas and ticks, are ex­posed to dif­fer­ent reg­u­la­tory rigor in dif­fer­ent coun­tries, and they are mea­sured and mixed dif­fer­ently, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for U.S. At­tor­ney’s of­fice for the Cen­tral Dis­trict of Cal­i­for­nia in Los An­ge­les, where many of the cases were brought. There is also a sig­nif­i­cant price dif­fer­en­tial when you com­pare the U.S., Euro­pean and South African mar­kets, he said.

As­sis­tant United States At­tor­ney Joseph O. Johns, who pros­e­cuted the cases in Los An­ge­les, said Ger­son’s plea Mon­day caps off a lengthy ef­fort to pro­tect con­sumers from the scam.

“Our goal with these pros­e­cu­tions has been to dis­man­tle the en­tire smug­gling and dis­tri­bu­tion net­work for these il­le­gal prod­ucts,” he said.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.