Defendants plead guilty in smuggling case

John Charles Taveras, left, sits beside his attorney David Downes during circuit court proceedings on Monday. Taveras pleaded guilty to a money laundering charge arising from a Sheriff's Office undercover investigation into the smuggling of untaxed cigarettes. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – Two New York City men pleaded guilty Monday in Shenandoah County Circuit Court to single charges of money laundering in a cigarette smuggling case.

John Taveras received a longer jail sentence, 90 days, than another cigarette smuggling defendant, Thaer Nimer Khashman, who will serve 30 days. Both were also sentenced to two years supervised probation. Both men will receive credit for time served, leaving Taveras with about six weeks and Khashman with about two weeks to spend in actual confinement.

Taveras and Khashman each could have been sentenced to a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison and a $500,000 fine on the money laundering charges.

The plea agreement ended a prolonged legal battle in which their defense attorney, David Downes of Front Royal, sought to learn the details of an elaborate undercover investigation conducted by the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office into cigarette smuggling.

Downes filed three freedom of information requests, one of which led to Sheriff Timothy C. Carter revealing that his office had received more than $11 million and spent almost $10 million as a result of the sting operation during a three-year period from Jan. 1, 2011 until Dec. 31, 2013.

John Charles Taveras, left, stands beside his attorney David Downes during circuit court proceedings on Monday. Rich Cooley/Daily

Downes’ latest FOIA request has asked Carter to produce 10,000 pages of documents pertaining to the investigation, a request that Carter has so far denied.

Taveras’ case was initially scheduled for a two-day jury trial that was to begin Monday. Khashman’s case was to have been scheduled for a trial or a final disposition after Taveras’ case had been decided.

Each defendant still faces additional charges – 26 for Taveras and 19 for Khashman –
that were not included in Monday’s plea agreements. Those cases also involve money laundering charges as well as charges involving the purchase, sale and transport of untaxed cigarettes in Virginia and racketeering.

The plea agreements call for the remaining charges to be scheduled for a jury trial or disposed of on Nov. 4.

Downes said he and Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Louis Campola reached a tentative agreement early last week and finalized it late Friday.

Shenandoah County Circuit Court Judge Dennis Hupp listens to an attorney during circuit court proceedings. Hupp has announced his plans for retirement. Rich Cooley/Daily file

Judge Dennis L. Hupp accepted the Taveras’ agreement after the defendant disclosed that he had a previous conviction in New York on a charge related to cigarette smuggling. Khashman, who received the lesser sentence of the two defendants, has no prior felony convictions.

“That’s why you’re being treated different,” Hupp told Taveras, referring to the previous conviction. “Given that, I’ll accept the agreement.”

Campola was unavailable for comment after the hearing.

Taveras and Khashman were indicted in late November 2013, two of nine defendants, most of them from the New York area, charged as a result of the Sheriff’s Office undercover investigation. Downes has repeatedly clashed with Campola and Carter over access to records of the investigation dealing with amounts of money involved, tax issues, subpoenas of undercover law enforcement officials and the methods of the investigation.

At one point in the case, Campola asked Hupp to impose a gag order on Downes that would have prevented him from speaking to the media. Hupp denied the motion. Hupp tentatively decided to close one hearing, then reconsidered and left it open, despite claims by Carter that information about the undercover investigation was too sensitive to be reported by the news media.

Tax labels are stamped with the Virginia label on these boxes of cigarettes at an area retail store on Monday. The Shenandoah County Sheriffs Office has been conducting sting operations selling cigarettes without the tax stamp. Rich Cooley/Daily

Carter and Campola have insisted that cigarette smuggling between New York and Virginia is too serious a crime to ignore, despite criticism from Strasburg Police Chief Tim Sutherly and some others in law enforcement that the sprawling investigation is a misallocation of resources.

Other critics, including Downes, have contended that Carter has used the investigation as a money-making device for the Sheriff’s Office. The agency collected more than $4 million over the last 10 years from the U.S. Justice Department’s asset forfeiture program. Under the program, local law enforcement agencies can receive significant sums of money for participating in investigations that lead to the seizure of property and cash linked to criminal activities such as drug and cigarette trafficking.

A U.S. Justice Department audit earlier this year found the Sheriff’s Office has been following all rules governing the reporting, accounting and spending of asset forfeiture funds.

Downes said after the hearing that taking the plea agreement was in the best interests of his clients.

“I don’t have a dog in the fight anymore with the sheriff,” Downes said. “Maybe someone else will run with it.”

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