Sen­tenc­ing de­layed in cig­a­rette traf­fick­ing

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - REMEBERING - BY FRANK GREEN fgreen@times­dis­patch.com (804) 649-6340

A 30-year-old Pales­tinian who helped il­le­gally traf­fic at least $9.5 mil­lion in cig­a­rettes from Vir­ginia to other states al­most avoided any jail time Thurs­day.

Issa Qa­trawi, pleaded guilty in fed­eral court in Septem­ber to a charge of con­spir­acy to traf­fic in con­tra­band cig­a­rettes, ad­mit­ting that from June to Au­gust 2015 he used busi­ness mem­ber­ship ac­counts to buy 2,085 car­tons of cig­a­rettes from Vir­ginia whole­sale club stores and then il­le­gally traf­ficked for re­sale in other states.

Fed­eral sen­tenc­ing guide­lines called for a jail term of six to 12 months. But, de­scrib­ing him as a bit player and easy mark for re­cruit­ment when he en­tered the U.S. in June, 2015, the govern­ment asked he be given 36-months of pro­ba­tion.

That did not sit well with U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne, who pointed out that Qa­trawi was ar­rested on a felony cig­a­rette traf­fick­ing charge in Hen­rico last May, long af­ter his Au­gust 2015 ar­rest in the fed­eral case.

“We don’t have all the cards on the ta­ble,” said Payne, who asked the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice and Qa­trawi’s lawyers to re­port back on the Hen­rico charge, which is set to be tried on Feb. 2. Payne then re­set Qa­trawi’s fed­eral sen­tenc­ing for March 9 and al­lowed him to re­main free on bond un­til then.

Ac­cord­ing to a sen­tenc­ing me­moran­dum filed in the case, Qa­trawi was born in a refugee camp in Jeri­cho in the West Bank and came to the U.S. for a bet­ter life and to ob­tain help for his blind son. A code­fen­dant al­legedly drew him into the traf­fick­ing scheme.

The govern­ment con­ceded that Qa­trawi was a low-level, late re­cruit to the con­spir­acy that in­volved the cre­ation of fraud­u­lent Vir­ginia busi­nesses with the Vir­ginia Depart­ment of Tax­a­tion, al­low­ing them to buy cig­a­rettes from the whole­sale clubs with­out pay­ing Vir­ginia sales tax.

Qa­trawi, wrote the govern­ment to the court, “had been in the United States only a mat­ter of days be­fore he was re­cruited into the con­spir­acy. He spoke very lit­tle English, and his em­ploy­ment prospects were lim­ited. He was an easy tar­get for re­cruit­ment.”

Cit­ing his co­op­er­a­tion and re­morse, both the govern­ment and Qa­trawi’s lawyer sug­gested a sen­tence of pro­ba­tion.

Last month, Laila Alayat, a 37-year-old New Jersey woman with men­tal health is­sues, was sen­tenced to 16 months by Payne in con­nec­tion with the con­spir­acy.

Alayat pleaded guilty in June to charges of con­spir­acy to traf­fic in con­tra­band cig­a­rettes and wit­ness tam­per­ing. Eyad Sala­hedin, 39, also of New Jersey, is set to be sen­tenced next month.

The long-run­ning con­tra­band cig­a­rette racket is made pos­si­ble by the widely rang­ing cig­a­rette ex­cise taxes be­tween states. Vir­ginia has a tax of $3 per car­ton — sec­ond­low­est in the coun­try — while the tax in New Jersey is $27 a car­ton. In nearby New York City, the com­bined city and state tax is $58.50 per car­ton.

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