As One Cigar Aficionado Discovered, U.S.customs is playing hardball with smugglers of Cuban cigars
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By the time the Feds got finished hauling out his prized humidors, his Cohiba paraphernalia, his Cuban ashtrays and every cigar in his suburban home, Bill knew his life would never be the same. The Feds then made him an offer he couldn't refuse: become a government informant against your friends or we'll ruin your life.
Heeger and Griffin sat Bill down with his lawyer and explained what he'd have to do to avoid felony charges. Bill would have to wear a wire, record telephone calls and get Joe Hybl to spill his guts about the scope and nature of the alleged conspiracy. He'd have to introduce Hybl to a Customs undercover agent. Then, once the government had enough on Hybl and company, Bill would have to testify against them in open court.
But the law under which the case is being prosecuted is ripe for constitutional challenge. The elements of the trade embargo that prevent Americans from spending money in and traveling to Cuba were narrowly upheld by the Supreme Court on national security grounds in 1984, says Columbia University professor Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuban Documentation Project at the National Security Archives in Washington, D.C. Yet the Bush and Clinton administrations have not prosecuted those who have traveled to Cuba since, perhaps to keep the law out of the Supreme Court for fear the embargo might be overturned.
Some attorneys think it can be overturned. "It sort of depends on the jury and whether or not they want to buy into this facade," says Frederick Reemer, attorney for Hybl. "I don't think it is constitutional to declare somebody an enemy without a declaration of war."
The act's threat of massive penalties against inherently law-abiding citizens is called into question as well. Says Harris Taback, attorney for Hybl's girlfriend and alleged bookkeeper, defendant Julie Chatard, "The government likes to flex its muscles in a manner that is threatening in the hope that the person will cave in to that show of force and not be able to stand up to the power of the government."
By caving in, Bill may face even greater dangers from those he helped expose on Hybl's long list of clients, than from the government. The word on the streets of Sacramento is that by compelling Bill to become an informant, the government may have made him the enemy of "the wrong people." "Any time an individual is cooperating and assisting in providing evidence against other individuals involvedin criminal activity, there is always an element of risk and danger," says Heeger. Enough danger, in this case, to ponder sticking Bill and his family in the witness protection program.
When Customs busted Hybl on April 17 of this year, agents seized his cigars and his records, including the names and addresses of client restaurants and tobacconists. Word filtered back to Heeger and Griffin that some of the proprietors were unhappy with Bill for mixing them up in the alleged conspiracy. As buyers of products that would lead to the enrichment of Cuba or Cuban nationals, the owners of these establishments would face the same $55,000 civil penalty, and 10 years and $250,000 criminal penalty, for each count of Trading with the Enemy as Hybl. Because modern-day organized crime often launders illegal profits through investments in legal businesses, mob money has been turning up in distributorships of all kinds. Persistent rumors about a Mafia-cigar connection, therefore, may not be farfetched.
"We believe that there's a connection between cigar smuggling and drug traffic," says Griffin. "This particular defendant [Hybl] was once involved in drug smuggling, so we conclude he's used the same dope smuggling connections for cigars. There's even some organized crime involvement [in cigar smuggling]."
Asked for specifics, Heeger is vague. "We've developed nothing additional in our investigation indicating that traditional organized crime is involved with this particular group of individuals," he says.
Still, Smoke Ring has given the U.S. Treasury Department the financial and political muscle to pursue every significant player in Cuba-U.S. cigar smuggling and significantly curtail imports into the States. The ease of turning cigar smokers into informants has made this investigation a potential drift net for Heeger and Griffin to cast across the country. Perhaps in preparation for expanding the case, Griffin has been kicked up to Washington for a nine-month gig at the Justice Department's home office. Asked if Justice is grooming him for Cigar Czar, Griffin says with a laugh, "You're not gonna print that, are you?"
Heeger and Griffin admit they've only uncovered the tip of the iceberg, but rest assured, they're not going away soon. The pair and their higher-ups are considering whether to use seized cigars as bait for further investigation.
The estimated $75 million to $100 million Cuban cigar smuggling business is hardly significant when compared to the Drug Enforcement Agency's seizures of drugs; estimates reached from the number of seizures and the average price and purity would place the value of seized coke, marijuana and heroin at $20 billion, $4 billion, and $300 million per year, respectively. Yet, no one at Treasury would comment on whether redirecting funds from drug interdiction to a year-long undercover cigar investigation is a prudent use of federal resources. Moreover, neither major party can be expected to risk losing anti-Castro votes by overturning the Trading with the Enemy Act.
A handful of convictions in the Hybl case might chill Cuban cigar imports and scare some premium cigar smokers away from Cuban cigars. All subsequent suspects to whom Heeger has offered Bill's rat-or-rot proposition have quickly agreed to cooperate, says Heeger. (At press time, Xavier Abrego pled guilty to all charges and is cooperating with the government.) And the potential for turning Hybl and company against even bigger fish cannot be discounted. How far this goes depends on how the government presents its case, and whether Griffin can obtain significant penalties. "No one's ever been prosecuted [for] an organized conspiracy with Trading with the Enemy," says Griffin. "We've never seen anything on this kind of scale, so there's no sentencing history."
Regardless of the outcome, Smoke Ring has made Bill more respectful of the law. He's dying to go back to Cuba, sure. But not without permission from the Treasury Department. And not to smoke cigars. "After all this," says Bill, "I kinda lost my hard-on for cigars."
But the government hasn't. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, has introduced a resolution calling for the exemption of cigars from the Helms-Burton Act, because of what he calls the circumvention of the law by members of Congress and the executive branch. Until some action is taken, however, little can be done to keep the government from confiscating the Cuban smokes.
"In some ways, I think that cigar smokers make a great constituency to end the embargo, not only on cigars but all other Cuban trade," says professor Kornbluh. "Cigars are a symbol of freedom, of power, of good taste, and those who want to smoke them see more clearly than anybody the ridiculousness and counter-productive nature of the U.S. trade embargo. And I would only say, 'Cigar smokers of America unite, to help lobby against the embargo and hasten the day when it's a lot easier to smoke a Cuban [cigar] in this country.' " If you do phone your congressman to protest, don't call after hours. You might disturb him and knock the ash off his Cohiba. *
Matthew Reiss is a freelance investigative reporter and a humor columnist for newyorkreport.com.
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