FBI sting smokes out fake Marlboro men

Posted: April 11, 2013

For more than a year, the system worked flawlessly.

Containers of counterfeit cigarettes shipped from China to the ports of Newark and New York moved easily through U.S. Customs and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security without inspection.

From the docks, the cigarettes, falsely labeled as Marlboro and Marlboro Lights, made their way to a nondescript warehouse in southern New Jersey, where they were readied for the final leg of their trip, to California.

The transport crew, responsible for smoothing the way through Homeland Security and making sure the cigarettes - nearly 2.3 million packs of them - got to California safely, was none other than the FBI.

The FBI's elaborate logistics operation was part of a sting set up to stem the tide of contraband cigarettes into the United States, according to court documents filed this week in U.S. District Court in Camden.

FBI undercover agents were paid "handling fees" of as much as $55,000 per shipment, delivering the cigarettes to four men in California.

Three of them were indicted in the case. The fourth was named in an earlier complaint, but not in the indictment.

The fake Marlboros typically sell for half price on the street, a bargain, perhaps, for smokers,

But, not for the state of California, said V. Grady O'Malley, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, because it lost 87 cents a pack in taxes, or about $2 million, according to legal documents.

"Were the defendants New Jersey residents and we arrested [them] here, the New Jersey tax loss would have been over $4 million," O'Malley said. Cigarette taxes in New Jersey are about $2 a pack, he said.

The papers listed two attorneys for the defendants. Both were contacted. Neither responded.

On Aug. 28, 2009, undercover agents delivered 374 cases, or 187,000 packages, of cigarettes to one of the defendants, Ricky Le, on a street in South El Monte, California - for $25,000, the papers said.

The next deal was struck on the spot: More than 1,000 cases of cigarettes would be next, the contents of a 40-foot shipping container. But the handling fee would have to go up to $55,000. And by the way, would Le like to branch out to other products, such as counterfeit Nike shoe or jeans?

Le declined, according to court filings.

Four other deliveries ensued, with Le and other defendants allegedly receiving the cigarettes and paying the fees.

The last delivery, on Feb. 17, 2011, didn't go quite as smoothly as the earlier ones.

Defendant Jia Yongming had accepted the delivery of 1,070 cases, or 503,500 packs of cigarettes, at a warehouse in Commerce, Calif., and was prepared to pay the agreed-upon fee of $48,000, court papers said.

Instead, he was arrested, and the cigarettes and money were seized by the FBI.

A criminal complaint had been filed in the case in July 2012 and had been under seal since then.

O'Malley said each shipment of Chinese cigarettes had been tested and was virtually identical to the genuine product, produced by Philip Morris USA Inc., a subsidiary of Altria Group Inc.

Four men, Yongming; Le; Yazhou Wu, and Johnny Chan Koon Ha, were charged in the scheme.

Le, Wu, and Yongming were indicted, charged with conspiracy to transport contraband cigarettes and counts of trafficking in counterfeit goods. Of them, only Yongming was arrested, and officials are seeking Le and Wu. Ha, who is named in the unsealed complaint, but not the indictment, has been arrested.

Contact Jane Von Bergen at jvonbergen@phillynews.com, @JaneVonBergen on Twitter, or at 215-854-2769. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing

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