Restaurateur sentenced in cigarette smuggling

Scheme surfaced in Johnson probe

The only connection that Chun “Eddy” Chen knew of between himself and Jack B. Johnson in 2010 was that the then-Prince George’s County executive occasionally came into his Mitchellville carryout restaurant to order food.

But on Monday, Chen was sentenced to 18 months in prison for participation in a black-market cigarette scheme that came to light as a result of a federal investigation into the political corruption that Johnson orchestrated in the county during his time in power.

“It simply came up in the course of the Jack Johnson investigation,”U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte said before sentencing Chen at the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Prosecutors said Chen, 34, played a minor role in the scheme, finding buyers for some of the more than 17 million untaxed cigarettes that were bought in Virginia and transported via Maryland to New York for sale. Through wiretaps, authorities snared Chen, three police officers, and five others in 2010 as part of the investigation that ultimately led to Johnson being sentenced to seven years in prison for accepting bribes.

The connection between the two cases was liquor store owner Amrik Singh Melhi, who pleaded guilty to bribing one of the police officers to transport untaxed alcohol to his store and also providing money to Johnson in exchange for political favors.

Another participant in the scheme, 40-year-old Amir Milijkovic, was also sentenced on Monday. Judge Messitte ordered him to serve 30 months in prison.

Both Milijkovic and Chen pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to interfere with commerce by extortion.

Prosecutors said Milijkovic had a more involved role in the black-market operation, as he was the one who originally set up the scheme and recruited a county police officer to serve as protection while the cigarettes were transported across state lines.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sujit Raman said Milijkovic profited more than $230,000 and Chen profited more than $213,000 between July 2009 and January 2010, the time that authorities observed the operation. After investigators stopped monitoring the transactions while they focused on links to Johnson, Mr. Raman said the illegal activity continued.

Attorneys for both men argued that if investigators would have been focused solely on the cigarette scheme, authorities would have made arrests sooner and their clients would not have faced such steep penalties.

Stanley Reed, Chen’s attorney, said his client was brought into the scheme when Prince George’s County Police Officer Chong Chin Kim, a friend for more than 10 years, asked Chen if he could help him with the transports. The officers involved in the case have not yet been sentenced.

“This was a guy who was kind of minding his own business when he was approached by an old friend,” Mr. Reed said.

Chen, a Chinese immigrant who is a legal resident but not a full U.S. citizen, could also be deported as a result of the conviction, Mr. Reed said.

Milijkovic was the person initially approached by undercover officers and asked about buying the untaxed cigarettes after federal investigators in the District told their Maryland counterparts that they were looking into illegal drug and cigarette activities involving one of his brothers, Mr. Raman said.

But Milijkovic, who owned an auto-glass repair shop in College Park, had no means to sell the untaxed cigarettes, so he turned to others to find buyers, defense attorney William Brennan said. “Each person in this conspiracy played a different role,” Mr. Brennan said, as he argued that Milijkovic would not have had the means to participate in the scheme if others had not stepped in.

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