Saturday, January 28, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Group Wants Official Probe of Tobacco Sting

HAMPTON, Va. (CN) - Taxpayer money fueled a cigarette sting operation that the government scrapped because of agent corruption, civil rights activists say in court.

Just months after creating Blue Water Tobacco Co. in 2010 as a shell entity for a joint sting operation with the city of Hampton, Va., the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives "withdrew ... due to agent corruption," according to the petition from Coalition for Justice for Civil Rights.

Despite this development, however, "sworn officers of the police division of the city of Hampton continued to pursue the investigation continuing to operate Blue Water Tobacco Company collecting, depositing and dispensing funds known as 'money churching' without the expressed authority of the city council of the city of Hampton," the petition in Hampton Circuit Court states.

"Over three (3) million dollars of taxpayers (sic) money was spent over the course of the operation of Blue Water Tobacco by the police division of the city of Hampton without the expressed consent of the city council of the city of Hampton."

The Daily Press, a local newspaper, reports that the undercover business operated for 19 months with the purported intent of cracking the black market in tobacco, but officers never made a single arrest or filed any criminal charges.

In addition to cigarettes, Blue Water Tobacco used the "churning" money to buy SUVs, electronics, travel and training, according to the Daily Press, which says it looked studied the business's documents under open records requests. Officials reportedly halted the operation in January 2012.

The coalition says in its petition: "At no time did the police division of the city of Hampton provide revenue or expense reports to the city council of the city of Hampton or the citizens of Hampton.

"The petitioner contends that the police division and city manager of the city of Hampton egregiously misused and misappropriated taxpayer monies in the operation of Blue Water Tobacco Company without the expressed permission of the city council of the city of Hampton, thereby committing a criminal act," the petition continues.

Though the city council never consented, Blue Water Tobacco investigators used a "secret account" for the operation, the coalition says.

While the coalition concedes that there is an ongoing "internal investigation" into Blue Water Tobacco, it says the involvement of "the Hampton Police Division presents a conflict of interest and does create the appearance of impropriety."

"It is in the interest of justice that a special grand jury and special prosecutor be impaneled and appointed to avoid any such appearance or conflict," the petition states.

Coalition president Rudy Langford filed the petition.

In addition to the internal investigation by Hampton police, the city has hired two outside firms to examine the books, the Daily Press reports.

Chief Judge Christopher Hutton of the Hampton 8th District asked the Virginia Supreme Court to take over the case on Nov. 15, saying he "considers it improper for judges of the 8th District to hear this case."

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.