$2M in cash, assets seized, nearly $500K in lost tax revenue from most recent cigarette seizure
TACOMA — Four people under prosecution by the Attorney General’s Criminal Litigation Unit for charges related to evading cigarette taxes entered guilty pleas mid-trial yesterday. The defendants imported hundreds of thousands of cigarettes from other states or tribal reservations, then sold them at their Puyallup smoke shop without paying required taxes.
In the most recent raids on the store, roughly $2 million in cash and assets were seized, along with contraband cigarettes representing nearly half a million dollars in lost tax revenue. State, federal and local agencies who participated in the investigation will likely receive a share of the seized proceeds. Washington authorities estimate they may be entitled to as much as $500,000.
“Tax cheats who skirt our laws in order to line their pockets hurt honest retailers, as well as everyday Washingtonians who count on this tax revenue to fund state programs,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said.
Robert Comenout, Sr., Robert Comenout, Jr., and Lee Comenout Sr., pleaded guilty yesterday in Pierce County Superior Court to: (1) Unlicensed Cigarette Retailing, and (2) Possession of More Than 10,000 Contraband Cigarettes, both Class C felonies. Marlene Comenout pleaded guilty to (1) Unlawful Sale of Unstamped Cigarettes and (2) Possession of Less Than 10,000 Contraband Cigarettes, gross misdemeanors.
At the start of trial last week, two additional co-defendants also entered guilty pleas. Dennis Harris pleaded guilty to Unlicensed Cigarette Retailing, and Possession of More Than 10,000 Contraband Cigarettes, and former employee Grant Wyena pleaded guilty to Unlawful Sale of Unstamped Cigarettes. The fraud investigation began after Federal Way Police uncovered over $500,000 in cash during an unrelated search of Harris’ Federal Way house.
The defendants operated Indian Country Store in Puyallup, also known as Indian Country Smoke Shop (ICSS). The store has since closed.
The defendants imported untaxed cigarettes from tribal reservations or other out of state wholesalers, then sold these cigarettes without paying the required Washington tax. Untaxed cigarettes can be sold at a discount compared to lawful retailers’ products, allowing the violators to reap substantial profits at the expense of law-abiding retailers and the state.
Except on military bases, cigarettes sold in Washington must have a “tax-paid” stamp on each pack, either from the State of Washington or an authorized tribe.
Multiple searches have been executed over many years at the ICSS by various agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 2012 and the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board in 2015. Tens of thousands of cartons of contraband cigarettes have been seized from the ICSS property. This is the first successful criminal prosecution of the owners and operators of ICSS.
Douglas Dawson, Special Agent in Charge of the ATF in Washington state said, “ATF remains committed in our partnership with state and local law enforcement to stop the illegal trafficking of contraband cigarettes, thus creating a level playing field in an open market. These investigations are complex and lengthy, with the goal of holding those accountable for a crime that strips the state of necessary tax revenue.”
In the two most recent searches, 15,824 cartons of contraband cigarettes were seized, representing $478,676 in lost tax revenue. None of the cigarettes found during any search of ICSS had a valid tax stamp.
The Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting the case at the request of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office. Assistant Attorneys General Josh Choate and Mike Pellicciotti and Legal Assistant Kelly Hadsell handled the case..
Sentencing is scheduled for May 13 at 1:30 p.m. before Judge Jerry Costello.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Peter Lavallee, Communications Director, (360) 586-0725; PeterL@atg.wa.gov