Prosecution seeks to close cigarette trafficking hearing

By Joe Beck

The prosecution in a cigarette trafficking case is planning to propose an order that the next courtroom hearing scheduled for Aug. 6 in Shenandoah County Circuit Court be closed to the press and the rest of the public.

Attempts to conduct courtroom hearings behind closed doors are a rarity in adult criminal cases, but Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Louis Campola said he intended to write up such an order subject to approval by Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp.

“We’re closing the hearing,” Campola said in a brief interview Tuesday.

Asked what he planned to cite as his reason for closing the hearing, Campola replied, “We’re just closing the hearing.”

Campola is prosecuting several defendants from out of state whose indictments stem from undercover operations conducted by the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office. Two of the men scheduled to appear in court Aug. 6, John Charles Taveras and Thaer Nimer Khashman, both of New York City, are facing a combined total of 50 charges linking them to the smuggling of cigarettes from Shenandoah County to New York City.

Authorities say the two defendants were involved in the buying of untaxed cigarettes in Virginia and taking them to New York for sale at a large profit. The profit is created by the difference in price between cigarettes bought in low tax Virginia and sold in New York without paying that state’s much higher cigarette tax.

Earlier this month, Campola and defense attorney David Downes filed opposing motions over a proposed subpoena of documents sought by Downes. Downes is seeking rental agreements, invoices, receipts and billing between a Shenandoah County business and local, state and federal agencies that participated in what Downes describes as an undercover cigarette operation between Jan. 1, 2011 and Jan. 15, 2014. Downes is also seeking tax collection records from the Virginia Department of Taxation.

Despite their difference over the subpoena, Campola said Downes agreed to join him in asking that the next hearing be closed.

“It’s both our motions,” Campola said.

But Downes denied he had filed any motion to seal the hearing, although the court file in the case contains a sealed folder with contents that include documents related to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Downes.

“In the event the press is there, I don’t object to the press being present,” Downes said of the hearing.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com