Indigenous

IRS busts alleged multimillion-dollar tobacco-smuggling scheme in Akwesasne

A three-year, multi-agency investigation led by the U.S. tax authority targeted a key "broker" in a smuggling scheme that allegedly moved millions of dollars worth of tobacco through a border-straddling First Nation and into the Canadian black market, U.S. court records reveal. 

New York state man allegedly arranged tobacco purchases through a Miami company for smuggling into Canada

U.S. tax authorities targeted the 'broker' in a tobacco smuggling operation, according to court documents. (Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images)

A three-year, multi-agency investigation led by the U.S. tax authority targeted a key "broker" in a smuggling scheme that allegedly moved millions of dollars worth of tobacco through a border-straddling First Nation and into the Canadian black market, U.S. court records reveal. 

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and its investigative partners allege a man from Rochester, N.Y., set up shipments of tobacco for transport to warehouses on the U.S. side of Akwesasne for smuggling into Canada, according to the criminal complaint filed with the U.S. Federal Court in the Western District of New York. 

Akwesasne, a Mohawk community near Cornwall, Ont., straddles the Canada-U.S. border.

Bernard Perkins of Rochester and seven individuals from Akwesasne are facing wire fraud and money laundering charges, according to the criminal complaint that was filed on Aug. 1 and unsealed on Aug. 12.

"Based on evidence gathered during the course of this investigation, it is believed the cut rag tobacco sold by Bernard Perkins to customers [in Akwesasne] is ultimately smuggled across the border into Canada," Erin Briganti, a special agent with the IRS criminal investigation branch, says in the court document.  

Briganti says some of the tobacco was also used to make unlicensed cigarettes sold in Akwesasne and then shipped to other reservations in the U.S. 

Cut rag tobacco is tobacco that has been cut and is ready to be rolled into cigarettes. 

The St. Lawrence River runs through Akwesasne, which straddles the Ontario, Quebec and New York state borders. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Melissa Marangola, the assistant U.S. Attorney on the file, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Nor did either of Perkins's two listed lawyers. 

The RCMP could not immediately provide comment.

The RCMP has made about nine major unlicensed tobacco busts so far this year in and around Cornwall. In February, Mounties seized 1.9 tonnes of unlicensed tobacco in three busts over two days.

The U.S. investigation, which began in the fall of 2016, also involved the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security Investigations and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. 

Surveillance, phone records

Investigators used physical surveillance, phone and bank records, as well as interviews with co-operating witnesses with information on the inner workings of the alleged smuggling operation, according to court records.

From the beginning, the investigation focused on Perkins and his business, Bristol International Group LLC. 

The criminal complaint alleges Perkins was the central player in the operation, handling the cash, placing orders and arranging shipments.

He allegedly charged about $94,000 US cash per truckload  — which would carry about 14,300 kilograms of tobacco per haul. 

The complaint says he would sometimes pick up the cash directly or get a buyer to deposit it into one of at least three different bank accounts. 

Perkins would then allegedly wire funds to a company in Miami that would purchase the tobacco from a supplier in North Carolina.

Between August 2015 and July 24, 2019, Perkins allegedly wired $13 million to the broker in Miami, according to the criminal complaint.

Perkins would then arrange for truck drivers to transport the tobacco from North Carolina to the U.S. side of Akwesasne. The trucks would meet local customers "often times in the middle of the night," in gas station parking lots, the criminal complaint says. 

Warehouses 'deep in the woods'

The trucks would be led to warehouses "often times located off of main roads or deep in the woods," the criminal complaint says.

Some of the tobacco would be taken to one particular building, described as the "green roof" warehouse, near the St. Lawrence River. 

Inside the warehouse, which also had a machine to make cigarettes, the tobacco would be put into garbage bags "to be smuggled into Canada in addition to producing untaxed cigarettes," the complaint says.

The green roof warehouse also appears to have operated as a clearing house for unlicensed tobacco smuggling, according to information provided to investigators by witnesses. 

The witnesses described seeing a twin engine boat and two or three snowmobiles inside the warehouse that were used to smuggle tobacco across the St. Lawrence River into Canada, according to the criminal complaint. 

Perkins was arrested on Aug. 6 and released on conditions. His next hearing date is scheduled to be set on Oct. 4, according to court records.

About the Author

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.