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Smoking with the Enemy

As One Cigar Aficionado Discovered, U.S.customs is playing hardball with smugglers of Cuban cigars
Matthew Reiss
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

(continued from page 3)

It may have been at one of these establishments that Heeger came into contact with one of Bill's business clients. Heeger asked the client to get Bill to buy 15 boxes of Cubanos from Hybl, and Bill obliged. Bill figured that providing the cigars would stop that particular client from continually bumming smokes from Bill's own private stock. "It was not a source of income, and I was not making a profit," says Bill. "People wanted cigars, I knew this guy who had cigars, so I said, 'OK. I'll get them to you.' "

On Nov. 24, 1996, Bill drove to Hybl's house--maybe an hour away--where Hybl kept hundreds of contraband cigars in plastic coolers, plastic bags and various rooms. Bill loaded the 15 boxes into the trunk of his car and wished Hybl well. When Bill got them home, he called the client to tell him he could get them anytime. He might as well have been signing his own search warrant.

The next day was a workday. On the drive home, Bill opened his car windows and lit up an Esplendido. It'll be a long time before he lights another. As his family was sitting down to dinner that evening, there was a knock on the door. Bill opened it to a half dozen men in street clothes and Customs raid jackets with 9mm automatics drawn. Heeger, five Customs agents and Griffin walked in.

"We effected a nonforcible entry," says Heeger. Asked about the heat, Heeger is defensive. "We don't want this to come across as the 'heavy-handed government thugs.' We treated this as a normal search warrant. You've got to take precautions. You never know what's awaiting you on the other side."

What awaited was Bill's own stash of about 20 boxes of mostly Cuban cigars, nicely arranged, and also the boxes he bought from Hybl. His private collection would not have induced Customs to carry out such a bust, says Heeger. But Bill's "involvement with Joe [Hybl] took it to new levels. Bill was not a doper," Heeger explains. Nor did he sell contraband cigars to make his living. As a result, Heeger says Customs treated him with "kid gloves."

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."

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