The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Crime & Courts

September 27, 2012

Investigators seize tribal funds; U.S. attorney seeks forfeiture of cash

GROVE, Okla. — Business leaders of the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe would say nothing Thursday about the federal seizure of $266,000 from a Bank of Oklahoma account bearing the tribe’s name in connection with a Missouri-centered probe of millions of dollars worth of illegal cigarette sales.

A forfeiture complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Mo., makes a federal claim on seizures of more than $2.5 million in bank accounts and cash, plus a plane, several tractor-trailers and hundreds of cartons of cigarettes seized from at least a dozen people, tribes and tobacco operations since January in a federal probe of contraband cigarette sales.

No one has yet been charged with a crime, though a man alleged to have participated in contraband trafficking in New York was taken into custody, according to the federal civil complaint.

Central to the probe is a company in Independence, Mo., named Cheap Tobacco Wholesale, along with its principals, Craig Sheffler and his wife, Nicole Sheffler, also known as Nicole Davis, and a Wichita, Kan., man, Harry Najim.

Authorities allege that the Shefflers forged documents to cover up where cigarettes were being obtained for distribution without required federal tax stamps. Najim, the government alleges, set up foreign bank accounts to launder money made from selling the contraband and traveled overseas to hide the proceeds of the scheme.

The probe widened to include people from Florida, New York, Washington and Canada who the government alleges distributed the illegal products, in addition to the Grove cigarette manufacturing operation of the Seneca-Cayuga Tobacco Co. The tribe makes the Skydancer brand of cigarettes. The tribe also owns a convenience store in New York that is named in the probe.

The tribe also owns Grand Lake Casino and a boat operation at Grove, though they are not listed as being subject to any forfeiture actions.

The government alleges that the tribe sold tax-free cigarettes and fuel at the Seneca, N.Y., convenience store and brokered a number of contraband operations in New York. The tribe is not a licensed wholesaler there, the government said.

A receptionist in the tribal office said Thursday that none of the leaders were in the office.

John R. Birkes, treasurer of the tribe’s business committee, reached on his cellphone, said he was in a meeting and could not talk, except to say, “We don’t have any comment.”

Leroy Howard is chief of the business committee. Other members are Charles Diebold, Geneva Fletcher, Jim Spicer, Richard Enyart and Katie Birdsong.

The government, from January through April, also seized an airplane from Najim; four tractor-trailers; $599,000 from a bank account in the name of Cheap Tobacco Wholesale Co.; $740,000, $615,000, $18,260 and $4,000 in cash during undercover operations or traffic stops of suspects; bank accounts from two other corporations; and nearly 400 cartons of name-brand cigarettes.

The government contends that those named in the network conspired to sell contraband cigarettes by filing false reports in Missouri through the Sheffler company as to the origin of the products, and that they defrauded the state of New York out of tax money that state should have been paid.

Time frame

THE GOVERNMENT CONTENDS that the illegal cigarette sales took place in 2011 and early 2012.

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