OCEAN CITY — One of two Ocean City residents indicted by a New York grand jury in May 2013 in a vast smuggling and money laundering scheme, which culminated in raids on the resort area homes and businesses, pleaded guilty on Friday and now faces up to six years in prison.
In May 2013, federal officials concluded an investigation into a multi-million dollar cigarette smuggling operation based in and around the resort area with raids on two locations including the West Ocean City homes of local residents and business owners Basel Ramadan, 43, who has been called the “ringleader,” and Samer Ramadan, 41, who is being called the operation’s “enterprise treasurer.” Also indicted were 14 other alleged co-conspirators, from transporters to distributors to resellers, who were rounded up at locations all over the mid-Atlantic region on the same day as the federal raids in the Ocean City area.
On Friday, Samer Ramadan pleaded guilty to enterprise corruption, the top charge against him and now faces a sentence of two to six years in prison. Sentencing has been set for next Monday, July 7. During the plea on Friday, Samer Ramadan admitted his role in the operation run by his brother, Basel Ramadan, and told Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Foley his brother ran the operation.
For his part, Basel Ramadan appeared in court last Wednesday for a motions hearing and bail review and was sent back to jail without bond. His next appearance is set for August with a preliminary trial date set for October. In addition to the charges against him related to the cigarette smuggling and money laundering operation, Basel Ramadan has also been charged with conspiracy to commit murder, along with co-conspirator Youssef Odeh, for allegedly attempting to arrange for the killing of witnesses in the case via telephone from jail.
On Friday, Odeh pleaded guilty to both enterprise corruption for his role in the scheme and also pleaded guilty to second-degree conspiracy in the murder-for-hire plot. Odeh faces two to six years in prison and will be sentenced next Monday, July 7. Another of the alleged co-conspirators, Ahmad Abdelaziz, pleaded guilty last Wednesday to enterprise corruption and faces one to three years in prison when he is sentenced on Aug. 12. Earlier this year, another co-conspirator, Muaffaq Askar pleaded guilty to attempting to evade cigarette tax and was sentenced to a conditional discharge.
Following the indictments against the Ramadans and their alleged co-conspirators in May 2013, federal officials raided their West Ocean City homes along with their offices above the Subway restaurant on 26th Street. At the 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. 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.
From the beginning, 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 never been established. At a press conference following the raids in 2013, 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.”
The 300-plus page grand jury indictment includes 244 total counts and another 243 “pattern acts,” which attempt to establish the pattern of the operation over several years. Also included in the indictment are numerous “overt acts,” which include recorded phone conversations and movements of the alleged co-conspirators. According to the indictment, the Ramadans were successful for a long time in disguising the illicit proceeds and funneling through local banking institutions and allowed them to continue to finance the purchase of thousands of cartons of cigarettes from Virginia wholesaler Cooper Booth Inc.
Last October, the New York Attorney General’s Office indicted Basel Ramadan and co-conspirator and trusted lieutenant Odeh for allegedly attempting to arrange for the killing of witnesses in the cigarette smuggling and money laundering case from behind bars. With the cooperation of confidential sources, law enforcement personnel learned last August Basel Ramadan and Odeh wanted to kill two individuals living in New York who they believed were cooperating with officials in the investigation and prosecution.
Additional evidence of the alleged murder plots, hatched from inside jail, was gathered by law enforcement officials who monitor calls made by inmates. In this case, the New York Attorney General’s office has alleged Ramadan placed a call from jail to an undercover officer whom he believed as a contract killer arranging for the murder of witnesses in the case.
However, from the beginning, Ramadan’s attorney has asserted to The Dispatch the language used during the calls was vague at best and did not include specifics about killing or even harming any potential witnesses in the cigarette smuggling case. Ramadan’s attorney has said he believes for that reason the murder-for-hire charges against his client will not stand up in court and has filed for a motion to dismiss those charges.
Odeh pleaded guilty to the murder-for-hire charges last week, but the charges against Basel Ramadan for his alleged leadership role in the cigarette smuggling and money laundering operation, along with the alleged conspiracy to commit murder charges remain open with an August motions hearing set and a tentative trial date set for October.