Ex-caviar importer pleads guilty in fraud

A one-time importer of gourmet Iranian and Russian caviar who was on the lam since 1989 pleaded guilty in federal court in Manhattan Thursday to a scheme to cheat on customs duties that allegedly involved pawning off cheaper caviar on major airlines and cruise lines.

Isidoro Garbarino, a 69-year-old Italian citizen, was nabbed in September while changing planes in Panama en route to the Dominican Republic from Argentina, his lawyer said. He was transferred to the United States to answer an indictment issued in Manhattan in 1987.

In his heyday, according to news archives, Garbarino was hailed as a connoisseur of caviar, supplying popular outlets such as Zabars and pioneering the development of an American variety. But the 85-count indictment alleged that he had imported 50 tons of the delicacy worth $10 million while understating the volume on customs reports.

He also claimed that some of his imports were being re-exported to customers such as Pan American Airways, exempting them from U.S. duties, the indictment said, but then secretly provided inferior American caviar to those customers while keeping the high-grade beluga and sevruga imports to sell in America.

Garbarino was released on $1-million bond in 1987 and denied permission to travel after investigators reported he had stashed $7 million overseas. But he fled in 1989.

In his plea Thursday, Garbarino agreed to pay $3 million in unpaid duties, penalties and interest. He will face up to 4 years in prison at his sentencing on Jan. 7. Prosecutors promised to not charge him with fleeing the country. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office declined to explain why no bail-jumping charges were lodged.

But Bharara, in a news release, said, "Twenty-three years is a long time to be on the lam, but Garbarino will now be held to account for his fraud."

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