When the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Crimes Investigation Unit goes undercover, they do it in style — or at least they try to.
That’s what our crew learned when the unit allowed VICE News to tag along during an undercover mission to buy illegal ivory at an art gallery in Queens, New York.
The ivory trade in the U.S. is estimated to be a $23 billion dollar industry — and New York City is its hub. To discourage this, a 2014 law tightened restrictions by making the sale of undocumented elephant or even mammoth ivory completely illegal. The only sales allowed now are those where the dealer is selling articles that contain less than 20 percent ivory, and that have paperwork showing the items are more than 100 years old. Under any other circumstance, the sale of ivory is a crime.
The new law hasn’t stopped some dealers from trying, however — so the DEC is still conducting undercover operations. During the June mission, which went down at the Ro Gallery in Queens, DEC officers dressed as ivory-loving art connoisseurs. For Lieutenant Jesse Paluch, who headed the mission, that meant wearing a large ivory necklace and bracelet, as well as a linen shirt that he joked was designed to keep “a level of GQ.”
“There's always a level of paranoia because you know who you are, so you automatically think that these people are going to know who you are,” he said. “The best thing to do is just hide in plain sight and act normal.”
The mission was successful; Paluch and a fellow officer purchased a statue, which they later authenticated as containing ivory. One month later, with a warrant in hand, the officers returned to raid the gallery. VICE News filmed the bust as well, which led to the seizure of three additional pieces of ivory, worth a total of $36,000, according to the DEC.
The case against the owner of the art gallery is now pending pre-indictment. We spoke to the owner, Robert Rogal, during an “ivory crush” held in Central Park this past August where the DEC publicly destroyed illegal ivory agents had seized.
“A lot of the items that they're confiscating are vintage items that should go to a museum,” Rogal said. On Wednesday, he also disputed the DEC’s account of the items that were seized at his store, stating that they don’t contain ivory. He added that the statue that was purchased by the DEC officers contained less than 10 percent ivory and was over 100 years old. The case is “costing me my reputation over a ridiculous thing I wasn’t even aware of,” he said.
This segment originally aired on March 14, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.