1,600 cases of smuggled Chinese beer on the wall

Comptroller's office stores seized alcohol, tobacco

March 29, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Got a hankering for a Yanjing beer, imported from China? Don't look in the refrigerator of your neighborhood carryout, the imported beer section of a liquor superstore or even next to the sake at an upscale wine shop. There's only one place in Maryland to find a Yanjing - and a stale, dusty place at that.

The basement of the state comptroller's office in Annapolis.

"We've got weird stuff in here that I wouldn't have a clue how to drink," said Dale V. Irwin, the deputy director of the regulatory and enforcement division of the comptroller's office, which has the responsibility of seizing alcohol and tobacco brought into the state illegally.

On a recent afternoon, Irwin walked past rows of obscure Chinese beers, viscous bottles of Mexican rum mixtures and bottles labeled as "German spirits," all seized in recent raids by state officials.

The March 19 seizure of nearly 1,600 cases of Yanjing beer - the self-proclaimed "#1 selling beer in China" - from a distributor in Joppa was the largest alcohol bust in state history, officials said. State officials believe two men, whom they have not identified, were trying to sell the beer without a license.

Since William Donald Schaefer became comptroller in 1999, state officials have stepped up their enforcement of alcohol and tobacco violations. In 1998, fewer than a dozen people were arrested for such crimes in the state. Last year, 269 people were arrested, according to the state.

Increasingly, state officials worry that profits from cigarette smuggling could be used to sponsor terrorist activities. U.S. government officials indicted 11 men last winter who they allege funneled cigarette smuggling profits to Hezbollah, a militant Lebanese group.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, state officials forwarded the names of every Middle Eastern person they had been investigating to the FBI, Irwin said.

These days, smugglers from a variety of ethnic groups are being caught in the sweep, and the comptroller's evidence rooms are taking on a decidedly international flavor, especially in cigarette smuggling.

Before Sept. 11 and the subsequent security measures, Irwin said, 60 percent of arrested violators were Middle Eastern. "After that, Asians and Russians really cornered the market, but now we're seeing a Middle Eastern comeback," Irwin said.

The trend is graphically illustrated in the basement of the comptroller's office, where nearly $500,000 worth of tobacco and alcohol is kept as evidence. Some of the names on the evidence boxes of cigarettes are: Victor Hugo Alvera, Pun Cheung, Vlavimir Budyansky.

Smuggling can be costly for Maryland taxpayers. Last year, the state confiscated nearly $560,000 in cigarettes, representing a nearly $140,000 potential tax loss to the state.

Many involved are repeat offenders, state officials say. For example, An To, who lives in New York City's Chinatown, was arrested twice in a three-month span in Howard County on charges of trying to smuggle cigarettes into Maryland from Virginia.

In both cases, To bought cigarettes in Virginia, where the tax is 2.5 cents a pack, and brought them into Maryland, which levies a $1 tax per pack, according to court documents. He was convicted of four charges relating to smuggling.

To declined to answer any questions during a brief telephone interview last week.

In the gloom of the comptroller's basement, much of the evidence space reserved for alcohol is taken up at the moment by stacks and stacks of Yanjing beer.

Workers, who spent most of a recent day transporting the beer to storage, speed up when they walk past the room. "Don't want to see that," one man said, ducking away from the white cases of beer.

"He was working last Friday," Irwin said, sympathetically.

But the other rooms are more colorful, filled with staples such as Jim Beam whiskey and Corona beer, and other bottles like Von Konig Silbervasser, made in Germany.

Perhaps the oddest cocktail was the yellow liter bottle of Rompope Cornado Vanilla. The thick liquid with the consistency and color of eggnog was made in Mexico and seized during a raid at a Beltsville business in January last year.

The liquid was tested to make sure that it is indeed alcohol but nobody has been brave enough to think about tasting it. "It's a weird one," said Larry Tolliver, director of the regulatory and enforcement division.

Unlike cigarettes, which generally are sold back to the manufacturer and destroyed, alcoholic beverages are sold at periodic auctions - open only to licensed wholesalers.

Because beer goes stale, it often is thrown away. State officials aren't sure what to do with their mountains of Yanjing beer. Even though it has a bottled on date of May 10, 2000, state officials haven't ruled out auctioning it.

"Who knows? Somebody might want it," Irwin said. "There's a lot of it."

Sun staff writer Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this article.

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