Three men were indicted this week for shipping millions of packs of untaxed contraband Marlboro cigarettes that were part of a sting conducted by the FBI.
Jia Yongming, Yazhou Wu, and Ricky Le were indicted by the U.S. Attorney's Office on Monday in a U.S. District Court in New Jersey. They are charged with conspiracy to transport contraband cigarettes and trafficking in goods bearing counterfeit marks.
Thomas Dunn, an attorney for Yongmin, had no comment. An attorney for Wu and Le could not be reached for comment.
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Last July, the U.S. Attorney's Office arrested the three California residents in Los Angeles and charged them with conspiring to ship and distribute more than 4,600 cases of Marlboro and Marlboro Light cigarettes.
Like many other states, California requires a stamp to be placed on packs of cigarettes to show the state tax has been paid. California had a $0.87 tax on each pack of cigarettes while the illegal operation had been underway for over a year.
The cigarettes were shipped from China to ports in Newark, N.J., and New York City. From warehouses, they were headed for their final destination, California, where they were delivered by undercover FBI agents, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer. The agents were paid about $225,000 in commissions for delivering five loads of cigarettes.
The U.S. Attorney's Office said the state of California lost more than $2 million in taxes from this conspiracy.
David Sutton, a spokesman for Altria, which owns the Marlboro brand, said this had the "classic elements" of a counterfeiting cigarette case.
"In this case, it shows you that this kind of activity is invariably driven by higher and higher excise taxes," Sutton said.
This case began two months after the last Federal excise tax increase on cigarettes - to 62 cents per pack - in April 2009.
In the president's budget this week, there is a proposal to raise the Federal tax again by 94 cents to $1.95 a pack. If passed, Sutton said it "will definitely create a significant incentive for additional counterfeit cigarette smuggling."
Sutton said Altria supported this investigation.
"The counterfeit product almost always comes from China," Sutton said. "You see it in L.A., south Florida, the port of Newark - because of the New York City market. The criminals are sophisticated in counterfeit cigarette trafficking."
Sutton said counterfeiters rely on organized crime units to distribute the products.
"You see counterfeit trafficking in dense urban centers, like New York and Chicago, because you have established criminal organizations in place for distribution of the product," he said.