When Don Gleason wanted to buy a new pill-making machine for the dietary supplements his Big Island company sells, it seemed like a simple matter. He ordered the device from China, and it arrived in Honolulu in late March.
But the past two months have been anything but simple for the Hilo businessman. Since April 3, the machine has been in a bureaucratic black hole, detained by U.S. Customs in Honolulu for a violation that Gleason says has never been fully explained to him.
That means Gleason can’t fill orders and is losing money.
Even though the machine is somewhere in Honolulu, it isn’t considered to officially be in the United States.
“Until it receives its release,” said JoAnn Winks, a Customs and Border Protection public affairs liaison in Denver, “it’s technically not in the U.S.”
Finding out even this much about the machine’s whereabouts has been difficult for Gleason. Gleason was finally able to reach Customs Officer Lisa Young, who had detained the device, a Civil Beat reporter visited the U.S. Customs Office in Honolulu on Friday and suggested he call her at a different number.
“The worst thing was the lack of communication,” Gleason said. “I heard from no one.”
Young said Friday the matter had been turned over to Customs’ Fines, Penalties and Forfeitures Office, but declined to comment further. She referred questions to Jim Kosciuk, spokesman for Customs in Honolulu, who said he could not comment about a specific case. A spokeswoman in Denver also said she could not comment.
Gleason said Young also had told him Friday the machine had been sent to the Fines, Penalties and Forfeitures Office, where it is now considered seized. That means it will be subject to an administrative process that could result in the machine being released – or forfeited permanently without a court hearing.
Gleason’s company, Hawaii NoniPower Cooperative, sells capsules containing powdered noni, a fruit, said to have medicinal value. It was one of the traditional canoe plants brought to Hawaii by Polynesian voyagers.
The company has a machine to make big capsules, but Gleason’s customers in Japan wanted smaller capsules. So he ordered the new machine.
Federal regulations require importers to let the Drug Enforcement Agency know when they want to bring in such encapsulating machines.
Gleason admits he did not initially do this, and that the factory portion of his Hilo business was closed when a DEA agent came to inspect the facility to make sure it was a legitimate business. Those two factors appear to have triggered agents to detain the machine.
Gleason said he wasn’t too worried when he learned Customs was investigating.
“I said, ‘Sure, investigate it,’” he said. “We’re a legitimate company.”
But Gleason said Customs has been unresponsive to his requests for information.
Gleason said he had repeatedly tried to contact Young, the Customs officer on the detention notice, but that she did return his calls. On Friday, Young told Civil Beat that she had been on leave and that Gleason had been calling her personal number.
Gleason said he called the number left by the DEA agent who had attempted to inspect the factory.
“She was getting messages from me,” Gleason said, but he heard nothing back.
The situation was compounded by confusion over which form to fill out to obtain the necessary DEA permit. That wasn’t clear, Gleason said, because the DEA has passed a new regulation requiring an electronic form, but the rule hasn’t taken effect yet.
It took repeated calls to Washington, D.C., before Gleason got an answer from John Kronebusch, of the DEA’s Import/Export Unit in Washington, who sent Gleason a copy of the existing regulation April 3. But at that point, filling out the proper form apparently wasn’t enough.
Winks, the Customs spokeswoman in Denver, said the Fines, Penalties and Forfeitures Office decides what to do with the item based on a process described in the law. An importer facing seizure has several options, according to Customs’ online guidance: for instance, the importer can file a petition to get property back or file a claim with a bond to move the case to court, where a judge would decide what happens to the machine.
Ultimately, the guidance indicates, the matter may turn on whether an importer’s failure to comply with the law was the result of willful negligence or intent to defraud the government of revenue, or otherwise violated the law.
Gleason said it is little solace that he finally knows the status of the machine and that there is a process for getting it back. Young would not give him the number of the Fines, Penalties and Forfeitures Office in Honolulu, Gleason said, although the number is listed on a public phone directory at the Customs office’s reception desk next to a phone that visitors can use to call the office.
“Now I have to try to contact (the Fines, Penalties and Forfeitures Office),” he said. “And I’m not confident that it will go any more smoothly.”