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May 25th, 2013:

16 Accused of Smuggling Cigarettes Worth Millions

16 Accused of Smuggling Cigarettes Worth Millions


Published: May 16, 2013

One of the men had once lived in the same Brooklyn building as the personal secretary of a senior Hamas member, the authorities said. Another was something of a father figure to the terrorist who fatally shot at a van full of yeshiva students on the Brooklyn Bridge. And a third is said to have once received an investment from Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called blind sheik, who is now serving a life sentence for a terrorism plot.

Over the years, these three men each came under the scrutiny of the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division, which runs counterterrorism investigations. On Thursday, they were charged along with 13 other men — not on terrorism-related charges, but as defendants in a more commonplace conspiracy: trafficking in untaxed cigarettes.

At a news conference, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said that what had begun as counterterrorism police work uncovered a smuggling ring that was generating tens of millions of dollars by buying cigarettes in Virginia, where the state tax is 30 cents a pack, and selling them across New York, where they are far more expensive as a result of taxes as high as $5.85 a pack.

One defendant was overheard on a wiretap telling another, “This business is better than selling drugs,” said Mr. Schneiderman, who estimated the smuggling ring’s revenue to be at least $55 million. At its top, prosecutors say, was Basel Ramadan, a businessman in Ocean City, Md., who was arrested on Wednesday.

Beyond illuminating the economics of the black-market cigarette trade, the case also opened a window into the operations of the Intelligence Division, where investigators keep files on suspects for many, many years, slowly adding information from confidential informers and waiting to see whether a criminal case ever materializes. Several of the men arrested in the cigarette case first drew the division’s notice in 2006 or earlier.

“This case started because we were being vigilant about terrorism,” Mr. Kelly said. “We discovered that individuals who were on our radar for links to known terrorists were engaged in a massive raid on the New York State treasury.”

At the news conference, he focused his remarks on the links of several of the men to known terrorists, although he stopped short of saying that they themselves had any involvement in terrorism. But Mr. Kelly said much of the suspected profit from the cigarette smuggling ring had not been recovered, and he raised the possibility that it might have ended up with terrorist organizations overseas.

Of the 16 defendants named in the indictment, 11 were arraigned on Thursday in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on charges of enterprise corruption, money laundering and tax evasion. They pleaded not guilty, the authorities said.

Most of the men are from Brooklyn and Staten Island. Messages left for them or their lawyers were not immediately returned.

A version of this article appeared in print on May 17, 2013, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: 16 Accused of Smuggling Cigarettes Worth Millions.