Judge deals blow to prosecutors in cigarette case

A judge ruled earlier this month that plea deals stand for two men once accused of trafficking illegal cigarettes in Shenandoah County.

Thaer Nimer Khashman and John Charles Taveras were charged in Shenandoah County Circuit Court on numerous counts related to selling and possessing untaxed cigarettes from 2011-2013. The defendants pleaded guilty last year to one charge each. All remaining charges against the two defendants should be dismissed per a deal reached between their lawyer, David Downes, and the Shenandoah County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, according to the prosecutor handling the cases.

Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Lorraine Nordlund granted Downes’ motion June 8 to enforce the plea agreements. Nordlund heard the motion at the request of Judge Dennis Hupp, who had recused himself in the matter. Downes and Louis Campola, assistant prosecutor for the Shenandoah County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, testified during a hearing on the motion. Jerrold J. Negin, assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Prince William County, appeared on behalf of the commonwealth. Alexandria attorney Marvin Miller appeared on behalf of the defendants.

The commonwealth’s attorney does not plan to appeal the judge’s ruling, Campola said by phone Wednesday.

“We respectfully disagree with the judge’s decision, but we don’t have plans to appeal the decision,” Campola stated in an email. “We are focused on prosecuting the numerous other defendants.”

With the judge’s ruling, the defendants’ remaining charges will be dismissed, Campola said.

Campola noted that Khashman and Taveras were just two defendants included among 20 other people facing similar charges in the effort to tackle the trafficking of illegal cigarettes.

Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter stated in an email Wednesday that he had attended the hearing to see the outcome of the dispute over the plea agreement as well as to know what the outcome of the motion might have on the prosecution and the prosecution of his agency’s cases. Carter expressed disappointment.

“My staff are placed in personal risk of danger when they work undercover operations. They put together solid and well prepared cases into organized criminal activity,” Carter stated in the email. “None of my staff, nor I testified during this hearing.

“Of course, I abide by the Judge’s decision,” Carter added. “It appeared to me that her decision was based on whether or not there was a plea agreement and not the merits of the case. Certainly, I would have preferred that the case be tried on its merits. We had been urging that the cases be tried for over two years.”

Carter went on to state that Nordlund indicated that part of the delay in the case came as a result of Campola moving a hearing date to after the commonwealth’s attorney’s election.

“The efforts and work of the Sheriff’s Office staff came down to an alleged plea agreement that we had no knowledge of,” Carter added.

Downes argued in his motion that he and Campola met Aug. 26, days before the jury was scheduled for the Khashman cases. At that time, Downes stated, the commonwealth agreed that there might be serious problems in proving the defendant possessed unstamped cigarettes in Virginia for distribution purposes.

“Nevertheless, Campola advised that he would rather lose the case at trial than dismiss the charges prior to the election (Nov. 3),” Downes stated, noting that the prosecutor’s employer, Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Wiseley, sought re-election in a race against Chad Logan.

Downes claims in the motion that Campola accepted a compromise offer that would call for Khashman to plead guilty to one count of money laundering and postpone action on the remaining charges until the day after the election. Downes added that he agreed to the terms and to not file additional requests for information about the undercover operation.

Khashman pleaded guilty Aug. 31 to money laundering and received a sentence of three years in prison with all but 30 days suspended. Khashman served his sentence. Downes stated he contacted Campola on Nov. 2 to confirm that his client’s remaining charges would be dismissed. Instead, Campola said he received a response from the attorney general’s office a week earlier and could not explain the reasoning at that time. Wiseley won re-election. The commonwealth did not live up to its end of the bargain, Downes stated in his motion.

Nordlund said in court that she needed to decide whether or not such an arrangement to move forward and dismiss the remaining charges later existed, according to a partial transcript from the June 8 hearing.

“I find that there was an agreement to dismiss,” Nordlund said. “I find that the email that was sent … wherein Mr. Downes said that there was a reasonable reliance was essentially couched in order to protect the Commonwealth in accordance with the agreement that was reached.”

Earlier, Nordlund referred to testimony from Campola and Downes in reaching her decision.

“I found the testimony from Mr. Campola lacking in credibility,” Nordlund states. “Not only because it made no sense for all the reasons argued by Mr. Miller, it didn’t make any sense and it’s totally irrational.”

“And Mr. Downes strikes me as a very capable attorney, a very professional attorney who, in his right mind, would never have had his clients make these kinds of admissions under oath and expose his clients to this huge – huge, huge exposure later on down the road,” the judge stated.

Downes answered questions from both sides without hesitation, the judge goes on to say.

“Mr. Campola on the other hand was nervous and flustered,” the transcript states. “He was stuttering. He was not answering questions clearly. He was not answering questions directly.”

The judge also cites the email correspondence between Downes and Campola.

“First of all, this email is interesting because of the fact that it clearly puts the election issues at the forefront of the discussion which is contrary to the testimony from Mr. Campola and consistent with the testimony of Mr. Downes,” the transcript states.

Nordlund goes on to note that Downes testified that he didn’t want to leave any signs for the press in the case file to indicate that the remaining charges would be dropped.

The judge said Campola testified that the decision had nothing to do with the election and only fortuitous that they picked the day after the election. Campola says Downes said he would plead his clients guilty to all charges

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com