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Business Observer Monday, Dec. 17, 2018 3 years ago

Area entrepreneur agrees to pay $17 million for export, smuggling violations

Eric Baird founded shipping company Access USA Shipping, then known as, in 1997.

SARASOTA — Entrepreneur Eric Baird, former owner and CEO of Sarasota-based package consolidation and shipping service Access USA Shipping, pleaded guilty to export violations and agreed to pay $17 million to the U.S. Department of Commerce. 

According to a statement, Baird plead guilty to one count of felony smuggling and admitted to 166 administrative violations of U.S. export control laws as part of a global settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security. Baird, authorities contend, exercised some of the criminal activity after a top employee at his company warned him that is was against the law.  

Baird founded his shipping company, then known as in 1997. A previous Business Observer article states the company had $65 million in sales in 2012, up 1,200% from $5 million in 2004. Baird sold the company to Palm Beach Capital in September 2012. He is also one of the owners of downtown Sarasota's 8.6-acre Main Plaza mall, along with Jesse Biter and David Chessler.

Baird’s criminal plea was accepted by a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida Dec. 12, according to the statement. The Bureau of Industry and Security issued an order outlining the administrative violations and imposing civil penalties of $17 million, with $7 million suspended, and a five-year denial of export privileges, of which one year is suspended, the release adds. Authorities say the civil penalty is the largest to be paid by an individual in BIS history.

“BIS brought this action because of the serious potential harm to national security inherent in a business model where companies consolidating or forwarding packages abroad conceal from U.S. merchants the location of foreign customers and the fact that items are intended for export," says BIS Special Agent-in-Charge Robert Luzzi in the statement. 

In February 2017, Access USA settled with BIS and agreed to an administrative civil penalty of $27 million, with $17 million suspended, the release states. 

As part of the administrative settlement, Baird, the founder of the company, admitted to violations of the Export Administration Regulations committed from Aug. 1, 2011 through Jan. 7, 2013, during his tenure as CEO of Access USA Shipping. 

Authorities allege Access USA provided foreign customers with a U.S. address used to acquire U.S.-origin items for export without alerting U.S. merchants of the items’ intended destinations. The statement reads, "Access USA would regularly change the values and descriptions of items on export documentation even where it knew the accurate value and nature of the items." 

Some altered descriptions, according to authorities, were for controlled items on the Commerce Control List, including laser sights for firearms described as “tools and hardware” and rifle scopes described as “sporting goods” or “tools, hand tools.” 

Authorities contend Baird also established and/or authorized a program in which Access USA employees purchased items for foreign customers from a shopping list and falsely presented themselves to U.S. merchants as the domestic end-users of the items. 

"The activities that Baird knowingly authorized and/or participated in resulted in unlicensed exports of controlled items to various countries," the statement reads. 

Authorities say as early as September 2011, Baird was made aware that undervaluing items violated U.S. export laws. The U.S. attorney's statement says Baird received e-mails on the subject from his chief technology officer, who wrote, “I know we are WILLINGLY AND INTENTIONALLY breaking the law.” In the same email chain, authorities allege, Baird suggested Access USA could falsely reduce the value of items by 25% on export control documentation submitted to the U.S. government and if “warned by [the U.S.] government,” then the company “can stop ASAP.”

A criminal sentencing date for Baird is pending, the release states. 

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