A federal investigation is under way into whether a Reno businessman violated a U.S. trade embargo by purchasing six dolphins in Cuba.
Graham Simpson, who started a Caribbean company that offers the public a chance to swim with dolphins, is the target of the investigation by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Simpson, 52, acknowledges he bought the dolphins in Cuba for about $200,000. He said he went to Cuba to inspect them before they were flown to a huge pool next to his villa on the island of Anguilla.
But the former emergency room doctor said he was unaware that the purchase might violate the trade embargo that prohibits U.S. citizens from doing business with Cuba.
Born in South Africa, Simpson said he has dual U.S. and British citizenship and was living in Anguilla at the time, so he didn't regard himself as a U.S. citizen. He moved back to Reno about a year ago.
He further notes that most of the shareholders of his company, Dolphin Fantaseas, are from outside the U.S.
Federal officials, who were tipped off about the dolphin sale in August 2001, said Simpson's argument is not a valid excuse.
"If you're a U.S. citizen, you have to abide by U.S. laws, no matter what other passports you have," Treasury Department spokesman Taylor Griffin told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Griffin said the government is investigating whether the dolphin purchase warrants civil penalties. Embargo violators face fines of up to $55,000 per civil violation.
Since a voluntary moratorium against dolphin captures went into effect in the U.S. in 1990, the increased demand for dolphins has created a lucrative export business for Cuba, said Ric O'Barry, a dolphin advocate based in Florida.
Cuba now is one of the world's largest exporters of dolphins, with the animals bringing in from $40,000 to $60,000 each, he said.
Animal rights activists say operations that hold dolphins captive are cruel enterprises that should be shut down.
But Simpson defends swim-with-dolphin programs as valuable educational tools that provide warm experiences for people.