By News Editor, Shawn J. Soper
OCEAN CITY — Two local business owners, indicted by a New York grand jury last week for enterprise corruption and money laundering, were extradited to New York Wednesday and were expected to be arraigned Thursday afternoon.
Last week, federal officials concluded an investigation into a vast multi-million dollar cigarette smuggling operation with raids on two locations in and around the resort area, including the West Ocean City homes of residents Basel Ramadan, 42, who is being called the “boss” of the enterprise, and Samir Ramadan, 40, who is Basel Ramadan’s brother and has been called the “enterprise treasurer.” Federal officials also raided the Ramadan’s offices over the Subway restaurant they own at Sunset Drive near 26th Street in Ocean City on the same day.
At the Ramadan’s West Ocean City homes in the Oyster Harbor community, $1.4 million in large black bags was recovered, along with 20,000 cartons of untaxed cigarettes. Also seized were numerous vehicles and other property belonging to the Ramadans. The Ramadans allegedly conducted the vast cigarette smuggling operation out of their Ocean City properties, but 14 other co-conspirators, from transporters to distributors to resellers, were also rounded up at locations all over the mid-Atlantic region.
According to the New York Attorney General’s Office, the Ramadans and their co-conspirators allegedly funneled thousands of cartons of untaxed smokes and millions of dollars in ill-gotten revenue through Ocean City and Worcester County from a wholesaler in Virginia to a distribution warehouse in Delaware, from whence the illegal, untaxed cigarettes were distributed to retail outlets all over New York City and upstate.
On May 13, a New York grand jury handed down formal indictments against the Ramadans and their alleged 14 co-conspirators. As of yesterday, 15 suspects had been arrested including the Ramadan brothers, but a 16th suspect had fled the country to an unknown location in the Middle East, according to a New York Attorney General’s Office spokesperson. Eleven of the arrested suspects were arraigned in New York last week, while the two Ramadan brothers were just extradited to New York on Wednesday from the Worcester County Jail, where they had been held since last the raids and subsequent arrests last week.
“They were brought from Worcester County to New York yesterday [Wednesday], more specifically to Brooklyn and they were picked up by our officers,” said New York Attorney General’s Office Press Secretary Melissa Grace yesterday. “They’ve been processed and they are expected to appear before a judge for arraignment at any time now.”
Grace said the Ramadan brothers remained in custody in Maryland from the time of last Wednesday’s raids until this Wednesday, but did not fight extradition, which helped streamline the process.
“These two waived extradition,” she said. “They are entitled under law to fight extradition, but that makes everything certainly more complicated.”
Eleven of the alleged co-conspirators have already been arraigned and some were released on relatively high bonds, depending on the extent of their alleged involvement in the conspiracy. Grace said she was not certain if the judge would allow a bond for the Ramadan brothers, but because of their alleged leadership in the smuggling ring, it was likely they would be remanded to the New York Department of Corrections.
“It’s important to remember these are only allegations at this point and we have to work through the process, but we’re very confident in our position,” she said. “I don’t know what our position is for bonding out for these two, but because they have been identified as the leaders, I would think they would be remanded.”
Last week, there were not so subtle references to a possible link between the co-conspirators and known terrorist groups, fueling speculation much of the millions of dollars in proceeds from the illegal enterprise could be ending up in the hands of terrorists, but a firm link has not been established. At a press conference last week, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said there were concerns about the possible connections.
“The association of some of the suspects in this case to the Ari Halbestram’s killer, the Blind Sheik and a top Hamas official concerns us,” said Kelly. “While it hasn’t been established yet where the illicit proceeds ended up, we’re concerned because similar schemes have been used in the past to help fund terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah.”
An N.Y. Attorney General’s Office source said the investigation is ongoing on several fronts and every possibility is being explored.
The 300-plus page grand jury indictment includes 244 total counts and another 243 “pattern acts,” which attempt to establish the pattern of the operation over several years. Also included in the indictment are numerous “overt acts,” which include recorded phone conversations and movements of the alleged co-conspirators.
According to the indictment, the Ramadans were successful for a long time in disguising the illicit proceeds and funneled about $55 million through local banking institutions. That money allowed them to continue to finance the purchase of thousands of cartons of cigarettes from Virginia wholesaler Cooper Booth Inc.
“The Ramadans also furthered the untaxed cigarette distribution business by concealing and disguising the true nature of the illicit proceeds of that business by depositing a portion of the proceeds that the distributors used to pay for the cigarettes into small local financial institutions in the Ocean City area and used that money to purchase additional cigarettes for sale from Cooper Booth,” the indictment reads.
Although the brothers’ exact business ownership in the Ocean City area is murky at best, due to another Ramadan family also being local proprietors, tax records indicate vast holdings through various limited liability corporations, or LLCs.
When the news of the raids and the subsequent arrests came to light last week, there was an instant knee-jerk reaction from many in the community that somehow all or most Muslim-owned businesses in the area were likely connected, but that has proven to be unfounded, according to authorities, and many local Muslim-owned businesses are on the up and up.
The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) officials this week urged the public not to rush to judgment about all Muslim-owned businesses in and around the resort area.
“Obviously, in our system of justice, everyone if presumed innocent,” said CAIR Director Ibrahim Hooper. “We just have to let this run its course through the process and see where it leads. It would be un-American for anyone to generalize based on the ethnicity and religious beliefs of a handful of defendants and hold that against an entire faith-based community. We are urging citizens not to rush to judgment and deflect their angst on otherwise innocent people.”
The Ramadan brothers each face up to 25 years in jail for leading the cigarette smuggling operation.