Trials set in untaxed cigarettes cases

WOODSTOCK – A nearly two-year struggle over the legality of the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office’s elaborate attempts to nab out-of-state purchasers of untaxed cigarettes lurched toward a pair of jury trials Tuesday after a judge rejected several defense motions.

One defendant, John Taveras, was scheduled for a two-day trial in Shenandoah County Circuit Court beginning March 22. Another defendant, Thaer Nimer Khashman, is also scheduled for a two-day trial, which will begin April 19.

The two men had also been scheduled for trials several months ago until their attorney, David Downes, and Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Louis Campola reached a plea agreement on a few of the dozens of charges filed in the case. Taveras spent six weeks in jail and Khashman two weeks under terms of the agreement.

Downes and Campola are far apart on the remaining charges, so far apart that Judge Dennis L. Hupp lambasted both sides for refusing to talk to each other about the Taveras-Khashman cases and an unrelated case.

“I will not tolerate this freezing each other out and refusing to communicate,” Hupp said at one point after Downes spoke of his frustrations with Campola and Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Wiseley, who was not in the courtroom.

The judge ruled against what amounted to a motion by Downes to dismiss the case, a decision that Downes, in earlier remarks, suggested might be a fatal blow to his legal strategy.

Downes told Hupp that a failure to grant the motion meant, “There goes the case.”

“The importance of this motion can’t be overstated,” Downes added.

The hearing also included about 15 minutes of testimony from Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter under questioning by Downes. Downes has been attempting to learn the contents of about 10,000 pages of sealed documents pertaining to the undercover investigation that led to the arrests of Taveras, Khashman and other defendants. Carter and Campola have fended off Downes’ efforts, citing the need to preserve the confidentiality of investigative tactics and the identities of law enforcement agents participating in the investigation.

Campola, who once sought to close a hearing in the case, objected to a question by Downes which, Campola said, threatened to reveal information that would undermine the investigations.

“He’s prying open everything that’s been sealed,” Campola told Hupp.

On the witness stand, Carter identified at least two other law enforcement agencies, both federal, that worked with the Sheriff’s Office on the investigation involving Taveras and Khashman.

“There was a time when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms worked with us on this case,” Carter said, adding that, “I think Homeland Security was involved in this case.”

Downes said he wanted to learn more about how the Sheriff’s Office spent millions of dollars obtained through the alleged sales of untaxed cigarettes to Khashman, Taveras and others. But Hupp ruled that Downes had already obtained information that the Sheriff’s Office received more than $11 million and spent almost $10 million during the three-year sting operation.

“My point is what difference would it make if it’s $1 million or $10 million?” Hupp said in referring to the difference between expenditures and sales.

Hupp also rejected an argument by Downes that the Sheriff’s Office had broken the law by not paying taxes on the cigarettes sold to the defendants. Taveras and Khashman are accused of taking thousands of cartons of cigarettes back to New York City for resale at an enormous profit.

Downes has contended that a law that took effect in July 2014, which exempted law enforcement agencies from paying state cigarette taxes required of civilian merchants, meant that all undercover cigarette tax sales before that date were illegal.

But Hupp, while agreeing the Sheriff’s Office had technically violated the law, said the cigarette smuggling investigation was no different than other law enforcement stings focused on drug dealing and prostitution. As a practical matter, such investigations have rarely, if ever, been prosecuted if they are deemed a necessary and normal part of law enforcement, Hupp said.

“My point is law enforcement gets a pass on that because of the investigation in which they were involved,” Hupp said.

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