A Hilton Head Island store owner pleaded guilty this week in a Charleston federal court to illegally selling baby water turtles and to impersonating a federal agent to try to intimidate a competitor.
Steve Maleh, 42, owner of the Hilton Head shop Surf's Up, entered the plea after ignoring what federal Department of Agriculture agents said were numerous warnings that selling pet turtles with a shell size of less than 4 inches is illegal.
Those warnings came over a period of several years, during which FDA agents made multiple visits to another store owned by Maleh, Island Breeze Resort Wear, according to a news release from Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick Bianchi, who prosecuted the case.
Maleh, of Plantation, Fla., sold the turtles indirectly by including them in the purchase price of about $20 for a small aquarium. The practice can be quite lucrative but is relatively rare in this area, said Town of Hilton Head Island attorney Brian Hulbert, who aided initial investigations into the turtle sales.
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Hulbert said he has only heard of one other instance of juvenile turtles being sold locally, and that business, which he declined to name, ceased sales immediately when the town informed it of the violation.
Maleh, however, persisted.
"You just make a lot of money real quick. He probably pays next to nothing for the little aquariums," Hulbert said. "At one point, he had several hundred" turtles.
The sale of baby turtles has been banned by the federal government since 1975 because of concerns about salmonella poisoning.
In addition to admitting to three counts of illegally selling the turtles, Maleh is charged with sending a phony FDA letter to a competing business, ordering the owner to stop selling baby turtles.
In the letter, Maleh reportedly warned of fines and included a phone number registered to him.
After being indicted on the charges in January, Maleh said the government's case was "ludicrous" and that he is "respected in the community."
Calls to Maleh's home went unanswered Thursday and did not go to voice mail. A manager of Maleh's store Surf's Up, at 8 N. Forest Beach Drive, said the business is no longer connected to Island Breeze Resort Wear and would not comment further.
Island Breeze Resort Wear, like Surf's Up, sold beach gear, souvenirs, clothing and other merchandise.
U.S. District Judge Sol Blatt Jr. accepted Maleh's guilty plea and will review a report prepared by the U.S. Probation Office before sentencing him.
U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said the maximum penalty for illegal distribution of juvenile turtles is imprisonment for one year or a fine of $1,000 or both.
A conviction for impersonating a federal agent carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison or a fine of up to $250,000 or both.
FDA agents and the Hilton Head Code Enforcement Office investigated Maleh's business. He originally was charged with five counts of illegally selling the baby turtles, but his plea in only three counts will not make a difference in his penalty, Bianchi said. Sentencing should take place in two to three months.
This is not the first time authorities have intervened in Maleh's businesses. In 2008, the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office seized $147,000 in counterfeit Abercrombie & Fitch shirts from the two stores.
Maleh, who did not face charges in the incident, said at the time he had purchased the garments from a traveling salesman without asking for documentation. He also contested the valuation by the Sheriff's Office, saying the 684 shirts retailed for just $10,000.
"I've always been a law-abiding proprietor of a business," Maleh said in 2008.
After an investigation, an employee of another Hilton Head store, Ocean Motion, was charged with production and trafficking of goods with a counterfeit mark, said Robin McIntosh, spokeswoman with the Sheriff's Office.
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.