ANNAPOLIS — What began as a simple request by a local legislator to agents with the state comptroller’s office led to the biggest tobacco bust in agency history, said an official with the office’s Field Enforcement Division.
State of Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot announced the tobacco bust on Nov. 20 after nearly a half-million dollars of untaxed tobacco products were seized by the Field Enforcement Division (FED), representing a tax loss to the state of more than $286,000, according to a release.
Officials received a call from Sen. Joanne Benson (D-District 24), who was concerned about the sudden proliferation of tobacco retailers, particularly in the Capitol Heights area, said FED Director Jeff Kelly.
“She called and asked us to look into it, and that helped us focus even more on specific areas. And as we dug into the store ownership and management, we started to see some commonalities,” Kelly said.
As a result of Benson’s observation and concern, Kelly and his partners began conducting a lot of surveillance activity and other forms of investigation, ultimately being able to determine that Mehboob Chowdhury, 37, of Capitol Heights and Monzurul Islam, 29, of Columbia, were believed to be part of a larger tobacco smuggling syndicate operating in Maryland.
A long-standing investigation by the FED culminated with early-morning raids on Nov. 5 at various locations in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City, where agents discovered a large-scale operation to import and distribute untaxed tobacco products and cigarettes in the state.
The year-long investigation, conducted in collaboration with federal, state and local law enforcement partners, involved numerous routine tobacco inspections and surveillance operations by FED agents that drew vast quantities of untaxed cigarettes and other tobacco products, also known as OTPs.
“The work of the agency’s Field Enforcement Division is second to none, and this latest operation to bring down a criminal enterprise demonstrates solid police work and multi-jurisdictional coordination,” said Comptroller Franchot in a statement. “As a result, these lawbreakers will be held accountable and Marylanders will not see lost tax revenue going out the door.”
Agents seized thousands of cartons of untaxed tobacco products at a storage facility and at six retail locations. The combined retail sales value of the seized contraband tobacco products is $452,850.92 and represented a tax loss of $286,325.42 to the state of Maryland, according to the comptroller’s office.
FED agents arrested Chowdhury and Islam, both of whom were charged with selling OTP purchased from a distributor other than a wholesaler.
“What we think happened here is that these products were likely purchased in Pennsylvania, and then smuggled into the state of Maryland to the storage location, and from the storage location distributed to retailers for sale. And in doing that, bypassing the excise tax,” Kelly said.
During a related inspection at the Tobacco and Convenience Store in Northeast Baltimore, FED agents also cited store clerk Abdul Karim Rubel, 18, who faces misdemeanor charges of selling OTP purchased from other than a wholesaler, possession of untaxed OTP and possession and sale of untaxed cigarettes.
Search warrants were served at Extra Space Storage on 6300 Walker Mill Road in Capitol Heights; Tobacco Heaven at 4831 Silver Hill Road in Suitland; 24 Hour Best Tobacco Beer and Wine at 5400 Marlboro Pike in District Heights; 24 Hour Discount Mart Convenience and Tobacco Store at 5003-A Marlboro Pike in Capitol Heights; and the residence of Chowdhury of Capitol Heights and 2019 Toyota Highlander belonging to him.
Inspections were conducted at Tobacco and Convenience Store at 5300 Frankford Ave. in Baltimore; Tobacco and Wireless at 13312 Laurel-Bowie Road in Laurel; and 24 Hour One Stop Convenience at 6106 Old Silver Hill Road in District Heights.
According to the comptroller’s office, the total quantity of contraband tobacco products discovered and seized were as follows: 341,504 sticks of non-premium untaxed tobacco products; 521 packs of untaxed cigarettes; 7,866 packages of untaxed loose and hookah tobacco products; and 1,246 untaxed premium cigars.
The most significant portion of the contraband products seized by agents occurred at the Extra Space Storage in Capitol Heights. A total of 237,787 sticks of untaxed non-premium OTP with a retail value of $237,787 representing a tax loss of $166,450.90 and 2,953 packages of untaxed loose and hookah tobacco with a retail value of $48,757 representing a tax loss of $14,627.10 was seized at Extra Space Storage.
“Part of the significance here is there are a lot of Maryland businesses that play by the rules, they pay the taxes… and they’re hurt by this,” Kelly said.
“And then you have characters that come in, don’t play by the rules, use illegal products, don’t pay their taxes, make a lot of money, and at the end of the day could sell it just for a little bit less and run these other businesses out of business. And it’s just incredibly unfair.”
FED agents were assisted by Prince George’s County Police, Baltimore City Police and Maryland State Police. The Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office is also working with the agency as additional charges may follow.