NEW YORK (AP) — Scheming to scuttle a major cigarette-smuggling case that spanned from Virginia to New York, an accused ringleader plotted behind bars to get witnesses killed, authorities said as they announced new charges against him.
While in New York City's Rikers Island jail, Basel Ramadan gave an informant details in August about two people he believed were cooperating with authorities and he wanted dead, New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office said in unveiling the new charges Thursday.
Then Ramadan talked to an undercover officer posing as a hit man, according to the new indictment. Using a recorded jail phone, Ramadan explained that he had "one of those problems," the indictment said.
Ramadan, 42, and accused accomplice Yousseff Odeh, 52, pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and criminal solicitation. Both also are fighting the cigarette-smuggling charges.
Lawyers for Ramadan suggested Friday that that the Ocean City, Md., businessman was just venting, not actually planning a murder for hire.
"What this is going to turn out to be is basically him ranting in frustration, and I don't think he had any reason to truly plan to kill witnesses, in connection with a cigarette case, on a taped phone line," attorney Marc Agnifilo said by phone.
Odeh's lawyer, Andrew Ehrenpreis, declined to comment. The indictment says Odeh, an alleged distributor in the cigarette scheme, gave an informant descriptions of the witnesses targeted for killing.
"(Odeh and Ramadan) cheated New York taxpayers out of millions of dollars in tax revenue and then tried to cover up their dangerous and lucrative smuggling operations, which hurt New York businesses, by committing the ultimate crime," Schneiderman said in a statement.
Ramadan, Odeh and 14 other Palestinian immigrants were charged this spring with working together to sell over a million cartons of untaxed cigarettes in New York, costing the state an estimated $80 million in revenues.
The suspects bought mass quantities of cigarettes from a Virginia wholesaler, hid the smokes in a public storage facility in Delaware, and had distributors funnel about 20,000 cartons a week to New York City markets upstate New York grocery stores, authorities said.
In announcing the arrests in May, Schneiderman and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly noted that similar schemes in the past have raised money for terrorist groups. Kelly said some members of the cigarette ring had alleged links to known terrorists.
No terror-related charges have been brought in this case.
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