Md. Cigarette Smuggling Tied to Terrorism
Maryland tax enforcement agents have provided the FBI with a list of 200 suspects with possible links to cigarette smuggling in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern United States, saying the illicit activity has previously been a key fundraising source for t
The list was passed to federal agents shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in an unsolicited attempt to help federal authorities track the money behind those atrocities.
"We know that some of the money used by smugglers of cigarettes is directly passed on to terrorist organizations," Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D) told a perplexed audience yesterday at a meeting of the state Board of Public Works. The panel usually engages only in dry debate about the financing of state projects.
The FBI would not comment on the lead.
Links between smuggling and terrorism have appeared in past investigations. Last year, 18 people were arrested in Charlotte, accused of funneling profits from cigarette smuggling to Hezbollah, or the Party of God, a Lebanon-based terrorist group. Four men are awaiting trial; several others are at large.
But the seriousness of Schaefer's message was almost immediately obscured by the strange forum he chose for disclosing the development. Schaefer delivered the information in the midst of grilling Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) about his response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
The comptroller repeatedly expressed his annoyance with Glendening's decision to travel to New York to promote tourism and a return to normalcy, rather than stay in Maryland and outline more details about possible terrorist links within the state.
Glendening, who sits on the board with Schaefer and Treasurer Richard N. Dixon (D), tried to cut off Schaefer, calling his remarks ill-timed. He suggested that the smuggling connection, or any other security matter, would not be appropriate material for a public meeting.
Later, the governor's communication director gave an even more blunt assessment of Schaefer's remarks.
"The governor clearly thought that the statements being made were irresponsible," Michael Morrill said. "At this time, of all times, that kind of inappropriate behavior is absolutely unacceptable. There are proper forums, and the proper officials to be discussing these matters with. The Board of Public Works is not that forum."
During the meeting, Schaefer clearly disagreed. "You may not think this is the time for it, but I do," he snapped at Glendening.
Under Schaefer's control, the state comptroller's office has deployed enforcement agents to mount one of the most aggressive assaults against cigarette smuggling in the nation. State tax enforcement agents made 73 arrests last year, which netted 212,255 packs of cigarettes with a street value of $772,608. Yesterday, they stopped two separate smugglers carrying a combined 29,000 cigarettes, worth $105,000, officials said.
State officials said smuggling is particularly common in the Washington region because Virginia charges just 2.5 cents in tax per pack, while Maryland's tax on cigarettes is 66 cents, and New York's is $1.10. That offers a healthy profit margin to smugglers who buy in Virginia and sell in neighboring states.
"These aren't small-time operators we're talking about," said Mike Golden, a spokesman in the comptroller's office. "We've seen the Russian Mafia involved, and sometimes other, equally troubling groups."