News & Opinion

Foster’s scheme: It was all a bad design

A lot happened while Morning Read was in its annual hibernation. Some news is worth discussing and some maybe not, but the travails of Keith Foster are worth a peek.

Foster is a renowned golf architect who has completed dozens of high-profile restorations, notably at Colonial in Fort Worth, Southern Hills, Apawamis Club, Eastward Ho, Country Club of Detroit, Philadelphia Cricket Club and Greenbrier’s Old White. His original designs are not as well known, but the portfolio still has been highly acclaimed.

That sterling body of work was overshadowed Dec. 19 when Foster pleaded guilty to violating portions of the Lacey Act, a federal law which prohibits the selling and transporting of endangered species, migratory birds and other wildlife. In the wake of the plea, officials at Congressional and Olympia Fields country clubs reportedly severed ties with Foster for renovations. His sentencing is set for March 8.

The Lacey Act, which dates to 1900, exists to stop poaching. Foster, 60, of Upperville, Va., must have thought that he was privileged enough to break the law whenever it suited him.

Phone messages left with Foster and his attorney, Edward B. MacMahon, were not immediately returned.

Why would a successful golf architect break the law on numerous occasions? Money.

According to court documents, starting on or about Dec. 2, 2016, Foster, through his retail store The Outpost in Middleburg, Va., sold endangered species and other wildlife illegally imported into the U.S.

Middleburg, in the heart of Virginia horse country, would seem to be the ideal place for Foster to find willing buyers among the wealthy residents who asked few, if any, questions about the loot.

Among the items listed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Virginia: sawfish blades, a flask and a case made from crocodile skin, a jar and a box made from a sea turtle shell, a mounted barn owl, a table made with mother of pearl inlay, an African antelope mount, a duster made from ostrich feathers and a porcupine quill box.

Court documents further stated that Foster started dealing in endangered items in 2012, when he attempted to import an Indian leopard-skin rug, which was seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Foster’s petition for the rug’s release was denied. As part of the denial, Foster was notified of the regulations regarding endangered species and their importation.

Foster subsequently made multiple buying trips abroad each year, the government said, and imported at least 35 separate shipments of merchandise for resale, some of which contained endangered wildlife with a market value of $250,000-$500,000. Foster concealed the shipments with generic labeling, knowing that the items were being illegally imported.

Foster was so brazen about his illegal conduct that he would offer for sale some of the endangered items on The Outpost website, including worldwide shipping.

In an e-mail exchange with a customer discussing the potential sale of a sawfish blade, Foster wrote, “they are extremely difficult to bring in the States by the way.”

It was not the only time that Foster or employees of The Outpost discussed the illegal activities of importing endangered species.

"There are always things that I want. It's just a matter of how, how risky I want to be," Foster said, according to court documents.

Foster added that he had imported tortoise shells up to 36 inches in size, noting, "They're endangered, so you know, they're a problem bringing those in." Foster told a customer that he has pre-ordered sawfish blades from a collector in England and stated, “Rest assured. I'm gonna bring more in. Cause I'm the only fool in the States that probably wants to risk it."

On March 9, 2017, U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents in Norfolk, Va., inspected a 40-foot cargo container belonging to The Outpost and found approximately 100 undeclared wildlife items, many of which were protected under the Endangered Species Act.

In November 2017, agents searched The Outpost and Foster’s residence and seized more than 100 items that were protected by numerous U.S. laws and treaties.

Despite those incidents, Foster continued his illegal activity, making another trip overseas in January 2018 and again attempting to import a container into the U.S. with a shipment of rosewood, a controlled item under U.S. law.

On Dec. 19 in federal court in Alexandria, Va., Foster pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

With his plea agreement, Foster is experiencing what Michael Flynn, a former national security adviser in the Trump Administration, and Michael Cohen, the president’s former attorney, have faced: cooperating with the government for a reduced sentence.

The maximum penalties for Foster’s offenses are a five-year term of imprisonment and $250,000 fine and forfeiture of assets.

The Outpost is now closed, and the website (http://theoutpostmiddleburg.com/) where numerous illegal items were for sale features a graphic showing the back of a man gazing at a mountain vista, underlined with the phrase, “It’s been a wonderful adventure. Thank you for being a part of it.”

Is Foster really that arrogant? Apparently so.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli