- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2000

ANNAPOLIS Maybe the fourth time will be the charm for state agents who are spearheading the battle against cigarette smugglers.

Enforcement agents for the state comptroller's office arrested Salah Aldalal, of Richmond, last week on charges of bringing 11,450 packs of untaxed cigarettes across state lines into Maryland. It was old hat for Mr. Aldalal.

Three times previously he was arrested on charges of cigarette smuggling. Last April 5, he was convicted, given a one-year suspended sentence and put on three years' probation.

This time, the comptroller's Field Enforcement Division hopes for something more in the way of punishment.

"We want him out of the country," Dale Irwin, assistant director of the division, said yesterday.

Mr. Aldalal came to the United States from Jordan on a six-month visa in 1990, and the comptroller's office wants him deported. He faces the cigarette-smuggling charges in Maryland and is wanted in Virginia for trial on charges of cashing bad checks.

The arrest of Mr. Aldalal and Nahed Ibrahim, also of Richmond, capped a busy 34 days for the comptroller's Field Enforcement Division.

Beginning July 1, the start of the state's new fiscal year, the division made 13 arrests and seized 44,035 cartons of cigarettes valued at $141,864. That's one-third of the 39 arrests made in the past 12 months.

The surge in arrests is not a fluke, said Larry Tolliver, director of the division. He expects the rate of arrests will increase in coming months.

The change is the result of a shift in priorities imposed by Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. When Mr. Schaefer took office a year and a half ago, "he said he wanted to beef up the enforcement side," Mr. Tolliver said.

In June of last year, Mr. Tolliver was brought in to direct the enforcement effort.

"We kind of started at ground zero," he said. "They had only made five cigarette arrests the previous year."

The hiring of Mr. Tolliver, who had been state police superintendent when Mr. Schaefer was governor, and the beefing up of the enforcement division brought complaints from critics who doubt that the results will justify the additional expense to taxpayers.

Mr. Tolliver agrees that state agents can have only limited effect on cigarette smuggling.

"We're getting better at what we're doing, but we're not making a dent in the ocean," he said.

But he said cigarette smuggling is a major criminal enterprise, similar in some respects to drug smuggling, that presents dangers to society that go far beyond loss of tax revenue.

Mr. Tolliver points to the case now under way in Charlotte, N.C., involving eight defendants charged with being involved in a cigarette-smuggling ring the government claims was raising money for the Islamic militant group Hezbollah.

Mr. Irwin said cigarette smugglers are getting more aggressive and cites a recent case in which a man rammed the vehicle of an enforcement agent while trying to escape arrest.

Cigarette smuggling may have become more pervasive because of the big money that can be made due to the huge difference in state taxes on tobacco.

The tax on a pack of cigarettes is just 2 and 1/2 cents in Virginia. It is $1.38 in New York City. Smugglers can buy cigarettes in Virginia, sell them on the streets of New York City at below retail prices and still make a big profit.

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