Bowie man pleads guilty in black-market cigarette scheme

April 1, 2011

A 34-year-old Bowie man acknowledged in federal court Friday that he participated in a ring that distributed more than 17 million black-market cigarettes, a scheme that prosecutors said cost the government more than $2.6 million in taxes.

Chun Chen, who goes by Eddy and owned a carryout restaurant in Maryland, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Chen’s conviction is the first stemming from a sweeping corruption investigation in Prince George’s County that has led to accusations against public officials, police officers and business people.

The far-reaching probe became public last fall, when then-Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and his wife, Leslie, now a council member, were arrested.

Jack Johnson was indicted in February on bribery charges. Leslie Johnson (D-Mitchellville) is accused of destroying evidence.

The bribery investigation and the case involving contraband cigarettes and alcohol apparently are linked by a connection between Jack Johnson and liquor store owner Amrik Melhi, 51.

Prosecutors allege that Jack Johnson solicited and accepted bribes from Melhi, co-owner of Tick Tock Liquors and Restaurant in Langley Park, and others. Melhi has been charged in the cigarette and alcohol case. He is not charged with bribery.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Copperthite offered a detailed picture Friday of the cigarette and liquor operation. Nine people, including three Prince George’s police officers, have been charged.

U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow said Chen’s attorneys plan to argue at sentencing that he was a “minor participant.”

The operation started in July 2009 and continued until at least January 2010, court papers allege.

Prosecutors have said that Melhi paid then-Prince George’s police Sgt. Richard J. Delabrer, 45, of Laurel and others to safeguard the transportation of untaxed cigarettes and alcohol into Maryland and Virginia.

What the men did not know, court papers say, is that their source for the untaxed alcohol was an undercover agent.

According to Chen’s plea agreement, Delabrer and another defendant began purchasing untaxed cigarettes from the undercover agent and reselling them.

One buyer was Chen, who then sold the cigarettes in New York, where local taxes are more than $8 per pack, court papers say. Prince George’s police Cpl. Chong Chin Kim, 42, also allegedly bought cigarettes, then resold them to New York buyers.

According to court papers, Maryland at the time imposed a sales tax of $2 per pack, and Virginia’s tax was 30 cents per pack. The Department of Treasury imposed a federal excise tax of $1.01 per pack.

Federal officials wiretapped Delabrer’s county-issued cellphone, and later a personal cellphone, intercepting thousands of calls, court papers say. Authorities recorded many calls about the cigarette and alcohol operation, the documents say, including some between Delabrer and Kim about payments for the contraband cigarettes.

Delabrer, Kim and Melhi have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. Chen’s sentencing hearing is set for July 13.

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