Charles Galbreath used to be in the news a lot. While he was a judge on the state Court of Criminal Appeals, he achieved notoriety for activities such as writing an obscene letter to Hustler magazine. As a result of pressure, both from the public and from the state Legislature, Galbreath resigned his judgeship in 1978.
Now Galbreath’s back in the papersthis time in the classified ads, where he’s attempting to sell cigars. The former judge says he’s been making trips to Cuba, buying the cigars from Havana, and bringing them back with him to Nashville.
The problem is that the United States has a long-standing embargo against importing goods from Communist Cuba. Smuggling Cuban products into the U.S., or selling them here, is a felony.
Nevertheless, recent classified ads have appeared in The Tennessean and Nashville Banner, hawking cigars described as the “best in the world.” The phone number listed in the ads matches the phone number of Galbreath’s law office in the Stahlman Building. Contacted by the Scene, Galbreath said that the cigars he’s selling are, in fact, Cuban cigars.
During an initial phone conversation, Galbreath said that, even though the cigars are Cuban, he actually got them from Honduras. What’s more, he said he didn’t know it was illegal to sell them in the U.S. Then he said he didn’t have any more time to talk.
Galbreath hung up, but he called back later to say, “I did get [the cigars] in Cuba. I didn’t get them in Honduras like I said before. I’ve been to Cuba about five times in the last couple of years.” He says he’s never had any trouble bringing the cigars into the U.S.
“I’d rather not answer too many questions if I’ve committed a felony,” Galbreath said, “but sure, I bring them in. I bring them right through [U.S.] Customs.”
Galbreath says he hasn’t sold many of the cigars, which he advertises for $15 to $20. But the manager at The Smoke Shop on Gallatin Road says the former judge came into his store about a year ago offering to sell him a “trunk load” of the smokes. “I told him I’m not really interested, and he left his card,” manager Darrell Thompson said.
Galbreath said he doesn’t recall the incident.
The federal government doesn’t permit most American citizens to travel to embargoed countries such as Cuba. The few who are permitted to travel there include federal officials and persons in certain other professions, such as journalists. Galbreath says he can travel back and forth to Cuba because he owns a radio station and has been credentialed in that capacity.
Galbreath says he’s never filed a story from Cuba for publication in any newspaper or magazine, but he says that he has, more than once, tried to get an interview with Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Ralph Whiteside, port director of U.S. Customs in Nashville, says a situation such as Galbreath’s would merit some investigation. “I would think our investigators would get involved with that,” he says, acknowledging that most persons who bring Cuban cigars into the United States don’t get caught.
“You can go to Canada, Europe, Mexico, anywhere, and buy them. Less than 10 percent of the people coming through Customs really get looked at,” Whiteside says. Still, he cautions that, “no matter how you acquire them, they’re illegal. If they’re illegal to import, they’re illegal to have, and, therefore, illegal to sell.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal McDonough says those who are authorized for travel to Cuba are allowed to bring back a certain amount of merchandise. But, he says, selling it is illegal.
Whiteside says his agency’s job is only made more difficult when situation comedies such as Seinfeld and Mad About You depict characters nonchalantly talking about buying Cuban cigars.
To cut down on the illegal cigar traffic, he says, airline pilots now “announce to people, ‘Don’t buy these.’ We really want people to know they’re illegal.”
On the one hand, Galbreath’s cigar shenanigans are surprising, given the fact that he is a practicing lawyer. What’s more, as a former judge, he’s expected to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the law. On the other hand, Galbreath’s recent activities seem to be par for the course, given the notoriously colorful events of his life.
For example, Galbreath, a friend of Hustler’s controversial publisher, Larry Flynt, wrote his letter to that magazine using state of Tennessee letterhead. That’s a no-no for any piece of communication that is not official business. Second, Galbreath’s letter, which was reprinted in Hustler, included a particularly offensive postscript with an obscene reference to oral sex.
During one trip to Columbus, Ohio, where he was visiting Flynt, Galbreath was arrested for jaywalking. Tennessee’s Judicial Standards Commission charged Galbreath with being drunk and in the company of a known prostitute during the Columbus incident. A special legislative committee, however, could not find enough evidence to support the charges.
While he was still serving on the Court of Criminal Appeals in the 1970s, Galbreath publicly referred to the Judicial Standards Commission as “sons of bitches.” The Judicial Standards Commission also charged him with not reading pertinent records of lower courts before writing his opinions on various cases. The Legislature, however, rejected the charge.
After his resignation, Galbreath went on in 1979 to make his debut as a stand-up comedian at Exit/In and pursued a career as an actor. His most recent foray into politics came in 1996, when he made an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Metro school board.
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