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Dealer Pleads Guilty in Toy-Safety Case

Courts: L.A. importer is the first individual to be convicted of such charges.

August 16, 2001|SAM KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles toy dealer has pleaded guilty to repeatedly shipping unsafe goods from China in a case that marks the first criminal conviction of an individual for violating U.S. toy-safety standards.

Steven Thai, owner of the now-defunct Super Rambo warehouse in the toy district of downtown Los Angeles, was convicted Monday on four criminal counts for importing thousands of toys that posed choking hazards to children under 3. None of the toys, which included the likes of plastic monkeys with breakable arms, cars with detachable tires and robots with removable parts, ever reached consumers.

The case against Thai was made by the Consumer Products Safety Commission, and his plea was considered a milestone for the federal agency. Though the commission has won at least two criminal convictions against toy companies as well as many civil suits against companies and individuals, this was its first criminal conviction of an individual in a toy-safety case.

"He just repeatedly and repeatedly violated the regulations, and we just thought it reached the level of criminal conduct," said Michael Solender, general counsel for the commission.

Neither Thai nor his attorney, Frank Oo, could be reached for comment.

The safety commission, working in conjunction with the Justice Department, charged Thai in May for importing hazardous toys on 17 separate occasions between November 1996 and February 1999. On each occasion, the U.S. Customs Service, at the behest of the safety commission, confiscated the toys on local docks where they were unloaded after being shipped from China.

With Monday's plea, Thai faces a maximum of a year in prison and $20,000 in fines. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 26 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Thai broke the law by failing to ensure that the Chinese manufacturers were sending him toys that met U.S. safety standards, Solender said.

And similar violations are on the rise, he said. "There's obviously a problem," he said.

Indeed, Thai is not the first importer to be charged recently in Los Angeles, the nation's main port of entry for foreign-made toys.

In June, the commission filed a civil suit against Ameri-China International Inc. and its president, Austin Wu, for allegedly importing hazardous toys on nine separate occasions between 1997 and 2000.

But with 17 alleged violations, Thai's case called for criminal prosecution, Solender said. Additionally, the commission viewed it as an opportunity to set an example, he said.

"It's very unusual for the commission to bring criminal cases in the area of toys, but we want to send a message about how serious we are about enforcing these laws," he said.

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