By Tom Hays
A smuggling ring that made a fortune selling more than a million cartons of untaxed cigarettes in New York may have funneled some of the illicit proceeds to terrorist groups, authorities said Thursday.
The traffickers lived modestly and had alleged links to known terrorists, including Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind cleric serving a life sentence for a conspiracy to blow up New York City landmarks. That combination has raised concerns about where the money went.
"We know they made tens of millions of dollars but so far we've only found a fraction of that," state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said while announcing enterprise corruption and other charges against 16 people, all Palestinian immigrants.
Two reputed ringleaders, brothers Basel and Samir Ramadan, were arrested Wednesday in Maryland. Investigators found $1.5 million — some stashed in black plastic garbage bags — in the home and car of Basel Ramadan, authorities said.
Arrests also were made in New York City, New Jersey and Delaware.
A yearlong investigation found that the Ramadans and other suspects formed a distribution chain that began with the purchase of mass quantities of cigarettes from a Virginia wholesaler, authorities said. The cigarettes were hidden in a public storage facility in Delaware, where distributors picked up about 20,000 cartons a week for sale at markets throughout New York City and at grocery stores in upstate New York, authorities said.
Schneiderman and city Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters that similar schemes in the past have raised money for militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
"This is not the end of our investigation," the attorney general added. "We are following the money. We will work to track it down wherever it went."
According to Kelly, one of the men previously ran a business in the 1990s that was partly bankrolled by the blind sheik; another was a "confidant" of Rashid Baz, the Lebanese immigrant convicted of the 1994 deadly shooting assault on a van full of Hasidic students on the Brooklyn Bridge; and a third lived in the same Brooklynapartment as the secretary of a key Hamas fundraiser and leader in the 2000s.
Neighbors of the Ramadans in Ocean City, Md., described seeing a dozen or more federal agents and New York Police Department officers show up at the brothers' homes. The investigators brought one man out in handcuffs and also pulled out a safe, put it on the front porch and used tools to break into it.
The neighbors, Charles Mack and Roger Flather, said in phone interviews that one officer turned to them and asked as an aside, "Have you ever seen a million dollars in cash?"
The Ramadans were being held without bail pending extradition to New York. The names of their attorneys were not immediately available.
The total amount of money involved in the scheme remains unclear. But financial records show the traffickers deposited at least $55 million in proceeds in small banks in and around Ocean City.
The Ramadan brothers sometimes showed up at the banks carrying cash in beer cooler bags, authorities said.
The scheme cost the state an estimated $80 million in tax revenue.
Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko in Washington contributed to this report.