Prosecutor urges judge to issue gag order
By Joe Beck
WOODSTOCK -- The Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office piled on dozens of charges without justification against two New York City men in an undercover anti-cigarette smuggling operation involving transactions totaling $10 million, the attorney for the two defendants said Wednesday in circuit court.
David Downes, of Front Royal, also identified two undercover agents for the Sheriff's Office and disclosed the existence of a warehouse that he linked to a Nevada corporation. The warehouse and the corporation played major roles in building the case against his clients, Downes said.
The disclosures came during a series of motions that Downes and Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Louis Campola heatedly argued over how much evidence the prosecution is required to reveal to Downes in preparing for a trial.
Campola tried Tuesday to obtain an order from Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp that would have closed the hearing. At the end of Wednesday's hearing, he asked Hupp to issue a gag order to prevent Downes from speaking to the media.
Campola accused Downes of using the hearing to attempt to taint the jury pool in advance of a trial to be held at a yet to be determined date. Campola also argued that Downes was injecting political issues into the case, an apparent reference to Strasburg Police Chief Tim Sutherly's announced intentions to challenge Sheriff Timothy Carter in next year's election.
Hupp rejected both motions from Campola. The judge said the proposed order for closing the hearing was submitted too late on Tuesday for him to give proper advance notice to the media and the rest of the public.
"I held a telephone conference call with the attorneys and told them I did not think (time) was sufficient to close the hearing, and I refused to do so," Hupp said.
Hupp also said he had seen nothing in newspaper coverage of the cigarette smuggling cases that would justify placing a gag order on Downes.
"Until I have such evidence, I will grant no such motion," Hupp said.
Earlier in the hearing, Campola heatedly protested when Downes identified Dwight Farmer as an undercover investigator with the Sheriff's Office and placed him on the witness stand to answer questions about an operation that led to the arrest of his clients, John Taveras and Thaer Nimer Khashman, both of New York City. Both defendants are out on bail and appeared at the hearing.
Taveras and Khashman are charged with a combined 50 counts. Authorities accuse them of buying untaxed cigarettes in Shenandoah County and hauling them to New York City for sale at a large profit. The profit lies in the difference between low cigarette taxes in Virginia and high cigarette taxes in New York that go unpaid when the cigarettes are smuggled across state lines.
Farmer denied that one man indicted earlier this month on charges similar to those facing Khashman and Taveras was an undercover informant for the Sheriff's Office.
But Farmer said the man had asked for a "kickback for cigarettes transported by Mr. Khashman," Farmer told Downes.
Campola continued to object heatedly to the information Downes was seeking from Farmer.
"He has no authority whatsoever and this is not proper at this time," Campola said of Downes' questioning of Farmer..
Hupp upheld a motion by Campola to deny a subpoena motion by Downes that sought to obtain documents from Jeffrey David Mcalister, whom Campola and Downes both identified as an undercover agent of the Sheriff's Office. Downes also identified Mcalister as the agent for Mountain View Wholesalers LLC, a business located at 317 Tisinger Road, Mount Jackson, that Downes said was the site of the undercover operation.
Downes said Mountain View Wholesalers, which is registered in Nevada, bought the building and five acres of land in 2010 for $700,000 and added $125,000 improvements to it since then.
Downes called the 50 charges against his clients excessive.
"Our position is that the charges were unnecessarily run up to the tune of $10 million by my calculation," Downes told Hupp.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org