BROOKLYN — Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes Wednesday announced the arrest of 23 people as the result of “Operation Buttlegger,” an eight-month, multi-state investigation targeting distributors of untaxed cigarettes.
In the probe, detectives from the District Attorney’s Office posed as sellers of black-market cigarettes. Based on information from confidential informants, they sold more than 550 cases of untaxed cigarettes, with a retail value of $4,290,000.
According to the District Attorney’s Office, Mamadou Barry, 34, and Ching Chung Lam, 46, each purchased 100 cases (60 cartons per case, 10 packs per carton) from undercover agents. Lam was arrested on February 17, 2011, after giving an undercover detective a grocery bag full of $179,880 in cash.
Detectives also allegedly arranged with Meshulam Rothschild, 46, and three others to purchase untaxed cigarettes from Virginia, along with 10,800 counterfeit Virginia tax stamps to affix to the cigarette packages. The contraband was delivered to a warehouse at 81 Spencer St., Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Working with the federal Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Shenandoah County (Va.) Sheriff’s Office, Kings County District Attorney’s Office investigators arrested Rothschild; Nasmi Havolli, 51; his son, Nart Havolli, 20; and his nephew, Blerim Havolli, 24. Rothschild, Nasmi Havolli and his nephew were charged with criminal possession of a forged instrument and face up to 15 years in prison if convicted. Nart Havolli is charged with a tax violation.
In a third incident, defendants Gani Hodja, 25, and Abdul Herkash, 43, allegedly arranged to meet with investigators on Dec. 22, 2011, to purchase black-market cigarettes. An informant working with the detectives drove a van to meet the defendants and deliver the contraband. But when he arrived, the defendants allegedly maced the informant and carjacked the shipment. Detectives apprehended Hodja and Herkash and charged them with robbery, grand larceny, assault and several other offences. If convicted, they face 25 years in prison.
In addition, owners of several delis were arrested for selling bootlegged cigarettes. They were identified as Ali Ahmed, owner of the Rio Deli and Grocery at 3678 Nostrand Ave.; Nabil Zayed, owner of the 8 Star Food Corp., 8 Saratoga Ave.; and Ahmed Almhen, owner of the Smart 1 Deli, 3325 Snyder Ave.
Cigarettes sold in New York City must bear a joint New York City/New York State tax stamp. The average price of a carton of cigarettes purchased legally in New York City is $120 to $150. Untaxed cigarettes can be sold on the black market for $30 to $50 per carton. According to the city Department of Finance, half of all the cigarettes sold in the city are untaxed.
“I want to send a clear message that tax cheats, no matter how they try to deprive the citizens of this state of legitimate revenue, will be arrested and prosecuted,” said Hynes.