OCEAN CITY — Two local business owners, indicted by a New York grand jury earlier this month for allegedly being the “ringleader” and “enterprise treasurer” for a vast cigarette smuggling and money laundering scheme with possible links to terrorism, have plead not guilty and are being held in the New York’s Department of Corrections without bond.< ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office">
In mid-May, 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 local residents Basel Ramadan, 42, who is being called the “ringleader” and “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 owned at Sunset Drive near 26th Street in Ocean City on the same day.
At the Ramadans’ 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. Fifteen suspects have 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.
The Ramadans were held in the Worcester County Jail until last Wednesday when they were extradited to New York after waiving the extradition process. Basel and Samir Ramadan appeared before Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice William Miller for arraignment and each pleaded not guilty to all of the charge against them. The Ramadans were then remanded to the custody of the New York City Department of Corrections without bond, according to a New York Attorney General’s Office spokesperson this week.
According to the same source, the Ramadans’ defense attorneys asked that bail arguments be put off until next Tuesday, June 4, which is the next time the two Ocean City brothers are expected to appear in court in what will likely be a lengthy prosecution process. Meanwhile, the 14 other alleged co-conspirators in the vast smuggling and money laundering scheme have all been arraigned and most have been released on a wide range of bonds from as low as $75,000 for an illegal cigarette reseller to as high as $500,000 for alleged distributors and transporters.
Immediately following the raids in Ocean City on May 16, 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 following the raids and subsequent arrests, 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 this week the investigation is ongoing on several fronts and every possibility is being explored.
The Ramadan brothers have ownership stakes in several corporations, which operate local businesses, including the convenience stores in the Village Market on 18th Street and on 9th Street, the beer and wine store located in the Gold Coast Mall parking lot, the local Ledo’s Pizza franchise and the Subway on Sunset Drive. One of their corporations is Atlantic Ice Cream LLC, which operates the Ocean City-based Dairy Queen franchise and maintains a corporate office on 57th Street in Ocean City.