Four men have denied charges of attempting to evade $2.72 million in excise tax following an alleged 2.2 million illicit cigarette importation.
The group, which Customs investigators allege are part of a Malaysian organised-crime syndicate, were arrested after shipment from Malaysia arrived in mid-July.
While the cargo was declared as 175 roof extension units, Customs found some 2.2 million cigarettes inside the stacks of metal frames.
The find was Customs' largest single seizure for allegedly illicitly imported cigarettes at the time.
Today, in the Auckland District Court all four men pleaded not guilty to joint charges of defrauding Customs of revenue and participating in an organised criminal group.
Their interim name suppression also lapsed after arguments for a continued gag order were not advanced by their lawyers.
They are Kak Hou Yen, 30, Hong Ping Lee, 36, Hong Wei Lim, 33, and Qiaoye Wang, 30.
Initially Yen, a Malaysian national, was arrested in July and charged with attempting to evade $2.72m in duty tax and GST. He is the sole director of what Customs alleges to be a "shell" company linked to the shipment.
Yen now also faces a money laundering charge, the court heard today.
Customs' investigation continued after his arrest, however, and Lee, Lim and Wang were arrested after raids on three Auckland homes in September.
About $20,000 in cash and some more cigarettes were also seized, Customs said in a statement after their arrests.
The group is due to appear in court again in December.
The group's arrest came after the Herald revealed New Zealand's largest ever single-seizure tobacco smuggling case, which came just two weeks after the previous record find.
It also involves a Malaysian businessman, who has been charged over allegedly importing 2.39 million cigarettes inside a container from Malaysia on July 27, and trying to avoid a $3m tax bill.
Customs has said it has seized three Malaysian cigarette shipments in Auckland within a six-week period, the third being a shipment intercepted in late August of 2.31 million cigarettes, allegedly concealed in a similar way to evade $2.85m in duty and GST.
In July the Herald also reported that the increasing tobacco black market in New Zealand resulted in the Government missing out on $287.4m in tax revenue for 2019.
Some politicians, such as NZ First leader Winston Peters, have criticised the effectiveness of the annual tobacco products tax hike, which has led to cigarette prices in New Zealand being among the highest globally.
More legislation to help combat the problem also came into effect earlier this year.
The Customs and Excise (Tobacco) Amendment Bill closed a loophole allowing people to import cigarettes and loose leaf tobacco for manufacturing cigarettes and "roll your owns" for black market sales without excise tax.
Only Act party leader David Seymour voted against it, arguing further legislation simply creates more bureaucracy and continues to drive the tobacco supply underground.
Customs Minister Jenny Salesa, however, has said she believed the new law gave authorities enough powers to stem the flow of illicit tobacco into New Zealand.
As part of the Government's 2020 Budget no increase to the tobacco tax was also announced for the first time in four years.