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Comptroller's office efforts lead to arrests in cigarette case

November 26, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

The arrests last weekend of two people by Maryland Comptroller's Office agents is part of a relatively new effort to lock into an interstate black market for cigarettes, a Maryland Comptroller's Office official said Tuesday.

Hanna Wysocka, 28, and Zbigniew Wesolowski, 34, of Copiague, N.Y., each were charged with one count of transporting unstamped cigarettes and possession of unstamped cigarettes.

According to charging documents filed in Washington County District Court, two comptroller agents were staking out the couple at a Clearbrook, Va., store Saturday morning.


At about 11:30 a.m., the agents saw Wysocka and Wesolowski pull up to the store in a 1999 Dodge Durango, the documents state. About 20 minutes later, the two loaded into the Dodge about 10 cases of cigarettes, each containing multiple cartons, court documents allege.

The two drove off and headed north on Interstate 81 into West Virginia, and then into Maryland, according to the court papers.

The two agents stopped the couple near the Md. 68/Lappans Road exit, identified themselves and asked Wesolowski if he had a permit to sell cigarettes, according to charging documents.

When the agents inspected the sport utility vehicle, they found a total of 8,228 packs of Virginia-stamped Marlboro cigarettes - valued at $33,200 - and took the two into custody at about 12:40 p.m., the documents allege.

Wysocka and Wesolowski each were released on $10,000 bond Sunday, according to District Court records. They are scheduled for preliminary hearings in mid-December.

Dale Irwin, assistant director of field operations for the Comptroller's Office, said his office was created in 1999 to target cigarette-tax evaders and other tax-related criminals.

He said nationally, the illegal cigarette trade has been estimated as being worth more than $1 billion a year, and in some cases it has been linked to overseas terrorist organizations.

"It's big money, it's big business," Irwin said.

According to the Comptroller's Office Web site, investigators made 121 arrests between July 2002 and June 2003, and seized more than 139,000 packs of illegal cigarettes. This year's numbers as of Nov. 1 were outpacing that period.

It is illegal to bring into Maryland more than a few packs of cigarettes that were bought outside the state, regardless of whether they're going to be sold.

Irwin said smugglers frequently purchase large amounts of cigarettes legally in other states where they are cheaper, and sell them for profit in Maryland or other states where prices are higher. Local law enforcement departments often don't have the capacity to break large smuggling rings, he said.

He said cigarette smuggling deprives the state of taxes. The taxes on the cigarettes confiscated Saturday would have been $8,228.

Investigators in his office are in contact with local state's attorney's offices and judges around Maryland and in neighboring states to heighten awareness of the greater problem.

"This is not just about tax dollars," Irwin said.

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