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Layton • Just weeks before the SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium is expected to begin operations here, federal authorities have arrested a 43-year-old man for allegedly violating his probation by helping prepare the facility for its opening.
The alleged probation violation is one in a number of controversies surrounding aquariums opened by brothers Ammon and Vince Covino, the former who was the one arrested and the latter who is one of SeaQuest's owners.
Ammon Covino was taken into custody Sept. 27 in Austin, Texas, where he lives. He is accused of violating a provision imposed by a U.S. District judge in Florida that bars him from engaging in activity that involves exhibiting, transporting, buying or selling any fish or wildlife.
A court document alleges he was helping prepare for the openings of two SeaQuest aquariums, the one in Layton and another in Las Vegas.
Vince Covino, a Boise, Idaho, resident, is a co-owner of both aquariums.
A news release issued Tuesday by SeaQuest says Ammon Covino was in the Salt Lake City area two weeks ago for a multilevel marketing convention and had represented that his probation officer allowed him to view the construction process.
"Only when we were contacted by the federal authorities were we informed Ammon did not have permission to be on the SeaQuest site," the news release says. "We have cooperated fully with the federal authorities and have a good relationship with the assigned investigator. We are assured we have been in compliance with all laws and requirements on SeaQuest's end."
According to the release, Ammon Covino is not an employee, contractor or owner of SeaQuest Interactive Aquariums, "nor will he ever be."
The SeaQuest in Utah is getting a total of $100,000 in economic development incentives from Layton City and Davis County, much of it promotional assistance. Some of the assistance will be provided after the aquarium has been in operation for one month.
Officials from those governmental entities said they had been told about the probation violation allegation by Vince Covino and another co-owner, Bradly Boyle, of Bountiful, and do not believe there will be a problem with the aquarium.
"At this point, I don't believe we have any concern," said Davis County Commissioner Bret Millburn, adding, "I think it'll be a fantastic venue."
Layton City Manager Alex Jensen said that it's always troubling when someone allegedly violates the law but that "to our knowledge, there is no one else involved in operation of that facility" besides Boyle and Vince Covino.
The 20,000-square-foot SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium, at Layton Hills Mall, is expected to open in early November. Visitors will be able to interact with more than 300 species and 1500 animals in exhibits that include sea life, rain forest reptiles, tropical birds in walk-in aviaries and desert species, according to SeaQuest's website.
The aquarium also is touting experiences that include snorkeling with stingrays, feeding marine life by hand and getting a pedicure by dipping your feet into a tank of fish that will remove the dead skin cells.
Federal magistrate judges in Texas have issued orders that Ammon Covino be taken to Key West, Fla., for further court proceedings and be detained pending trial.
The Covinos established the Idaho Aquarium in Boise and the Portland Aquarium in Oregon. Controversies have visited both aquariums.
In 2013, Ammon Covino, then the president of the Idaho Aquarium, was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that he illegally bought spotted eagle rays and lemon sharks from sellers in the Florida Keys. The indictment alleged Covino made the purchases despite being told the sellers were unable to get the permits for the transactions.
Ammon Covino eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy to illegally purchase and sell fish and wildlife and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison, followed by two years of supervised release.
In the fall of 2015, he was accused of violating his probation by working at aquariums in Austin and San Antonio, Texas, that were opened by Vince Covino and was ordered in February 2016 to serve 90 days in prison.
The detention order issued for the latest alleged violation says the evidence indicates Ammon Covino was deceptive with his probation officer about the reason for his recent travel and changed his flight plans so he had an eight-hour layover in Las Vegas. He visited the aquarium there and then visited the Layton aquarium when he reached his ultimate destination in Utah, court documents say.
In April 2015, the Idaho Attorney General's Office issued a report claiming former executives and members of the board of directors at the nonprofit aquarium in Boise had a pattern of bad judgment and questionable use of charitable resources. (The report says Vince Covino was not a board member with the Idaho Aquarium but both brothers were members of the Portland Aquarium, a for-profit company).
No criminal charges were filed. The report noted that Idaho law does not give the Attorney General the authority to hold people civilly or criminally responsible for misappropriating charitable assets. The Aquarium of Boise, a nonprofit with no relationship to Idaho Aquarium Inc., now owns and operates the facility.
The Portland, Oregon-area aquarium was criticized almost from the day it opened in December 2012, according to The Oregonian, which investigated allegations by critics, including former aquarium employees, that the marine animals were being mistreated. Vince Covino adamantly denied the allegations, and an investigation by the Oregon Humane Society did not produce enough evidence to bring charges, the newspaper reported.
In December 2015, an aquarium news release said the facility would close in three months. Vince Covino said the landlord had sold the building and the new owners were planning to demolish it.