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Jeffrey A. Kelly, director of the Field Enforcement Division of the Office of the Comptroller, discusses a case in which more than $450,000 worth of untaxed cigarettes and tobacco products were seized.
Jeffrey A. Kelly, director of the Field Enforcement Division of the Office of the Comptroller, discusses a case in which more than $450,000 worth of untaxed cigarettes and tobacco products were seized. (Pamela Wood/Baltimore Sun / Baltimore Sun)

Maryland’s comptroller says his agents have completed the largest bust of untaxed tobacco products in state history.

State agents announced Wednesday that they seized more than $450,000 worth of cigars, hookah tobacco, cigarettes and other tobacco products during a series of raids earlier this month at storage units, stores, a home and a car in Prince George’s County. They also inspected stores in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City.

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The storage units were packed “floor to ceiling” with untaxed tobacco products, said Jeffrey A. Kelly, chief of the comptroller’s Field Enforcement Division.

Kelly said his team believes the tobacco products were smuggled into Maryland from Pennsylvania, and if they had been taxed properly, the state would have taken in $286,000 in taxes.

Comptroller Peter Franchot said the smuggling and illicit sales were coordinated by “a vast organized crime ring of bad actors” who were trying to circumvent state tax laws.

Boxes of untaxed tobacco products are stored at the Office of the Comptroller in Annapolis on Nov. 20, 2019. Officials say they seized more than $450,000 worth of untaxed tobacco products in a recent investigation.
Boxes of untaxed tobacco products are stored at the Office of the Comptroller in Annapolis on Nov. 20, 2019. Officials say they seized more than $450,000 worth of untaxed tobacco products in a recent investigation. (Pamela Wood/Baltimore Sun / Baltimore Sun)

Monzurul Islam, 29, of Columbia and Mehboob Chowdhury, 37, of Capitol Heights were charged with selling tobacco products that weren’t bought from a wholesaler, according to the comptroller’s office. Neither man’s charges were listed in online court records Wednesday, and officials said they could face additional charges.

Abdul Karim Rubel, an 18-year-old store clerk from Baltimore, faces misdemeanor charges of selling tobacco products that weren’t bought from a wholesaler, possessing untaxed tobacco products and possessing and selling untaxed cigarettes.

The comptroller’s agents began their investigation with a tip from state Sen. Joanne C. Benson, who said she noticed a proliferation of tobacco stores while on a bus tour of southern Prince George’s County last fall. She asked the comptroller and Prince George’s County officials to look into whether they were legal.

“We are working hard in the state of Maryland to discourage people from smoking,” said Benson, a Democrat.

Benson praised Franchot and Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy for their work on the case. She said that perhaps lawmakers should rethink the law they passed earlier this year to eventually move tobacco and alcohol enforcement out of Franchot’s office.

“In view of what has happened here ... I think we in the Senate and House should revisit what we discussed last year,” Benson said.

Franchot said the tobacco bust shows that the enforcement system is “not broken.”

The new law strips Franchot of tobacco and alcohol authority starting July 1, 2020. By then, the state is required to create an independent Alcohol and Tobacco Commission that would employ agents and run investigations.

The law was passed amid a feud between Franchot, a Democrat, and the Democratic-led General Assembly.

Franchot claimed lawmakers were stripping his power as punishment for his outspoken support for the craft beer industry.

Lawmakers countered that they didn’t think it was appropriate for the state’s chief alcohol regulator and tax collector to be collecting campaign donations from the very industry he oversees. And they said the idea came from a task force that studied the state’s liquor laws.

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Franchot said the move would cost state taxpayers $50 million over the next decade. But an analysis by the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services found that it would cost $4 million in the first year to establish the commission and move the field investigators. After that, the state would face about $700,000 each year in increased expenses.

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