21 charged in cigarette tax-evasion scheme; probe also snared bomb suspect

WHITE PLAINS - A Yonkers man is among 21 cigarette-smuggling suspects charged with evading the state tobacco tax in a sting operation that also netted a cache of homemade bombs and weapons inside Cortlandt man’s home.

The cigarette bust, which cost the state $21 million in lost taxes, was the largest of its kind in the United States, a state official said at a news conference this afternoon at the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office.

“There will be more arrests, I’m confident,” said William Comiskey, the deputy commissoner of taxation and finance. “This is just one type of activity they’re involved in.”

Ibrahim Althnaibat, 49, of Willow Street in Yonkers was one of the alleged “middle men” arrested in the sting, joining 20 others from the five boroughs of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

The sting also led to Thursday’s arrest of 52-year-old Gary Burstell of Cortlandt, where police said they found homemade bombs, 14 rifles, thousands of rounds of ammunition and $500 worth of fireworks during a raid of his home.

Burtell was not part of the cigarette smuggling ring, officials said, but investigators became aware of him when he started “schmoozing” with an undercover officer, Comiskey said.

Comiskey and DiFiore said the smuggling operation worked like this:

Westchester authorities launched the sting last year after a confidential informant told them that some people were looking to buy black market cigarettes, and invited state tax officers to join the operation.

They bought cartons of cigarettes straight from the manufacturers – mostly Newport and Marlboro – and started selling them out of a Yonkers garage.

Word of the operation got out, and soon undercover officers were selling unstamped cartons to scores of middle men, who would sell them at a discount to bodega owners and street vendors. The stores and vendors would sell the cigarettes at full price, and pocket the profits.

Some of those arrested would print out fake tobacco stamps and iron them onto the cigarettes before selling them to stores. The state tax on cigarettes is $2.75 per pack. New York City charges an extra $1.50 per pack.

The undercover officers were selling 20,000 cartons a week, and displayed the $841,000 they collected yesterday before the mass arrests.

“This was big business - $800,000 was a week’s pay,”  Comiskey said, referring to the amont investigators collected from the middle men.

More than 9 million unstamped cigarettes were sold in the sting, and the illegal purchases cost the state $21 milllion in lost taxes.

The men face felony tax fraud charges that are punishable by up to 25 years in prison. They also face a charge of possession or transport of 30,000 or more of unlawfully stamped cigarettes.

The yearlong operation was run by the enforcement arm of the state Department of Taxation and Finance, the Westchester District Attorney’s office, and detectives from the Yonkers and New York City police departments.


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