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A Hilton Head Island business owner was indicted Thursday on federal charges of illegally selling baby turtles.
Steve Maleh, 41, owner of Island Breeze at Coligny Plaza, was arraigned in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on a seven-count indictment related to the illegal sale of five turtles with shells less than 4 inches long, according to a news release from South Carolina's U.S. Attorney, Bill Nettles. Maleh lives in Plantation, Fla., according to court records.
Maleh also was charged with providing false information and impersonating a federal agent. He was released on a $250,000 personal-recognizance bond and is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Charleston on Jan. 23.
The federal government has banned the sale of baby turtles since 1975 to avoid exposing people, especially children, to salmonella, which can be regularly found on the reptiles, U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Beth Drake said.
The case was investigated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Hilton Head Island code enforcement officials, the news release said.
Drake said she could not comment on whether anyone was exposed to salmonella from the turtles. She said the case focuses on whether Maleh violated federal regulations.
Maleh denies the charges Thursday.
"It's ludicrous," he said over the phone. "I've ran a successful business on Hilton Head Island for 19 years and am respected in the community."
The business sells beach gear, souvenirs, clothing and other merchandise, according to Maleh and town staff attorney Brian Hulbert, who aided in the investigation.
Hulbert said Island Breeze did not sell the turtles outright, but sold small aquariums for about $20 and included a baby turtle with the purchase. The town and U.S. Attorney's Office had issued numerous warnings to the business, but it continued the practice, he said.
According to the indictment, Maleh lied to the FDA about the sale of turtles in April 2010 and then pretended to be an FDA agent a year later.
The indictment also alleges Maleh knowingly sold the turtles to customers in August, September and October of 2011, as well as last August.
Maleh was found guilty of ill treatment of the turtles by Hilton Head Municipal Court Judge Maureen Coffey in August and fined $1,092, following several warnings from the town for having too many turtles in one aquarium, along with dirty water, Hulbert said.
Maleh has also been cited in recent years for traffic, permit, noise and other violations of town ordinances, Hulbert said.
Maleh faces as many as to five years in prison and a fine of as much as $250,000 if convicted, Drake said.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.