Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Scott Sweetow, special agent in charge with the United States Department of Justice Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Atlanta field division, from left, Mack Chandler, deputy commissioner for the state and Sam Olens, Georgia Attorney General speak during a press conference at the Lawrenceville Police Department on Wednesday about a multi-million crime ring involving a cigarette tax scheme.
LAWRENCEVILLE — Officials announced Wednesday a large-scale operation producing dozens of arrests and seizures in connection with illegal cigarette trafficking in Georgia, the result of a multi-year, multi-departmental operation based out of Gwinnett County.
In a press conference held at the Lawrenceville Police Department, representatives from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Georgia Department of Revenue, as well as state Attorney General Sam Olens, announced 40 arrests of suspects accused of “defrauding the state out of millions in tobacco tax revenue.”
In what ATF-Atlanta Special Agent In Charge Scott Sweetow called “pure and simple organized crime” and “a series of conspiratorial rings,” the suspects — many gas station owners or tobacco wholesalers — were able to obtain counterfeit tax stamps for cigarettes and cigars.
By selling these products at “tax paid prices,” they were able to net substantial profits, officials said. As of early Wednesday evening, 40 of 50 suspects identified in the four-year, statewide investigation had been arrested. Sweetow said more could be targeted in the near future.
“This case started out fairly small, because frankly we weren’t aware of the true scope of it,” Sweetow said. “Once we started dealing with a few individuals, they were the ones that started spreading the word to their friends, their colleagues, their relatives, and they wanted more and more and more counterfeit product.”
Wednesday’s press conference was also attended by Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter, Sheriff Butch Conway and Lawrenceville police Chief Randy Johnson. While many of the suspects were based in Gwinnett, state officials said the county was chosen as a center of operations because of a good working relationship in past cases.
As of 6 p.m., Gwinnett County Jail online records showed 10 local arrests on racketeering or tax stamp charges: Antonio Bakkos of Lawrenceville; Sigi Chalil Cherian of Lawrenceville; Mamud Mohd Dhannani of Snellville; Amadou Diallo of Lawrenceville; Joseph Emmanuel of Bogart; Catejan Ferio Fernandez of Alto; Silvester Joseph of Bogart; Shaju Kuruvilla Mathew of Dacula; Reji Samuel of Lawrenceville; and Firoz Ramzanali Sayani of Lawrenceville.
Other hotbeds for arrests included the Macon area and regions “north of Gwinnett County,” Sweetow said. One suspect was tracked down in Guam.
Olens and the attorney general’s office will be leading the prosecution with help from Porter and other jurisdictions. The goal will be to recover as much tax money as possible.
“When agencies all work together, we can get the bad guys, we can take care of the swindlers,” Olens said. “And our office will prosecute these individuals to the fullest extent of the law.”