January 23, 2018: Two Indian Citizens and India-based Corporation Plead Guilty to Conspiring to Smuggle Counterfeit Cigarettes
Abhishek Shukla and Harish Shabhai Panchal, both citizens of India, entered guilty pleas, along with the India-based company, Jubilee Tobacco Industries Corp., to conspiring to smuggle counterfeit cigarettes into the United States.
Benjamin G. Greenberg, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Peter H. Kuehl, Acting Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Food & Drug Administration, Office of Criminal Investigations (FDA-OCI), Miami Field Office, Mark Selby, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (ICE-HSI), Miami Field Office, and Scott Israel, Sheriff, Broward County Sheriff’s Office (BSO), made the announcement.
All three defendants pled guilty to conspiring with each other, with the intent to defraud and mislead, sell and cause the sale and dispensing of a counterfeit tobacco product (cigarettes), the containers and labeling of which bore the trade name and marks of the American brand of Newport cigarettes, a tobacco product listed with the FDA pursuant to Title 21, United States Code, Section 387(e)(i)(1), (approximately 68,600 cartons of cigarettes), while knowingly using a counterfeit mark on and in connection with such cigarettes, the use of which marks was likely to cause confusion, to cause mistake, and to deceive. The counterfeit marks were substantially indistinguishable from the marks of the United States domestic manufacturer of Newport brand cigarettes, which marks were then in use by and registered to that manufacturer on the principal register of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, all in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 371.
According to court records, including a Joint Factual Statement submitted by the parties, beginning in March 2015 and continuing through August 16, 2017, the defendants initiated contact with an individual cooperating with FDA-OCI, offering counterfeit cigarettes for sale. Through internet negotiations, an agreement was reached for a 20-foot container filled with counterfeit Newport brand cigarettes to be shipped from India to Miami. Payment for the shipment was made in installments through international wire transfers to bank accounts in India and in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. On November 1, 2016, the container arrived and was seized at the Port of Miami with the assistance of U. S. Customs and Border Protection Officers. If distributed in the State of Florida, the un-taxed importation would have an approximate value of $1.2 million. Analysis conducted by FDA’s Forensic Chemistry Center determined that the cartons, packs, and cigarettes were all counterfeit.
Within two weeks of the arrival, the coconspirators sought out FDA-OCI undercover agents offering another shipment, twice as large. By April 2017, deposits totaling $55,000 had been made for more counterfeit Newport cigarettes. On June 9, 2017, the container arrived at the Port of Miami and was again seized with the assistance of Customs and Border Protection Officers, and turned over to FDA-OCI Special Agents. If distributed in the State of Florida, the un-taxed importation would have an approximate value of $3.2 million.
According to acts described in the conspiracy charge, Shukla and Panchal traveled to Miami in August 2017 to meet with the undercover agents to promote further business dealings. During the recorded meeting, they advised the agents that they had been partners for twelve years and personally oversaw the production of all the products being offered. They also assured the agents that they could counterfeit any American-made menthol cigarette with no problem, as well as other trademarked brands, and that they could produce tobacco blends, which would closely match the legitimate product.
Shukla and Panchal each face potential prison sentences of up to five years imprisonment. Additionally, they face possible fines of up to $250,000, followed by supervised release of up to five years. Jubilee faces a fine of up to $500,000. In its Plea Agreement, Jubilee agreed to forfeit $300,000, to the United States. Sentencing in this case is scheduled for February 12, 2018, at 2:00 p.m. before U.S. District Judge Kathleen M. Williams.
Mr. Greenberg commended the investigative efforts of FDA OCI, ICE-HSI and BSO, for their assistance with this long-term investigation. Mr. Greenberg also thanked U.S. Customs and Border Protection for their support. This matter is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald.