Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Los Angeles consular corruption charged

U.S. charges two former Armenian consular staff members in Los Angeles (updated)
Obstruction of immigration proceedings alleged
by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Wednesday July 29, 2009 at www.reporter.am

WASHINGTON - Two former employees of Armenia's Consulate General in Los Angeles were among five individuals charged by the United States in four separate criminal complaints with "conspiracy to obstruct proceedings" before the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

The complaints were unveiled on July 28 after a two-year ICE investigation and were made available to the Armenian Reporter and other media outlets the same day. The charges filed carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Armenia's Consul General Grigor Hovhannissian, who was posted to Los Angeles earlier this year, said he was shocked by the news.

"These allegations affect the standing of our country, something which we cannot compromise," Mr. Hovhannissian said. He added that he expected the issue would also be investigated in Armenia.

On July 29 the Consulate General issued a statement expressing “readiness to cooperate with the U.S. law enforcement agencies” to achieve a “prompt investigation of circumstances of the criminal case.”

“The Consulate General expects to receive from the American side all relevant information pertinent to the criminal case, most notably details of the [allegedly] falsified official documents and stationery,” the statement added.

The alleged scheme

Upon establishing that individuals are present in the United States illegally, U.S. immigration officials seek to determine these persons' nationality to be able to deport them to their countries of citizenship.

To organize the deportation, U.S. officials request formal confirmation from the likely country of citizenship that an individual in question is in fact its citizen.

In Armenia, such determinations are made by the Department of Passports and Visas, known by its Russian acronym as OVIR, which is part of the national police service, a former Foreign Ministry official told the Armenian Reporter. The Foreign Ministry's consular officials act as a conduit between Armenian and U.S. law-enforcement officials.

In cases, when a citizenship cannot be officially substantiated by the likely country (or countries) of citizenship, deportation proceedings are halted and individuals are allowed to stay in U.S. legally.

The federal complaints alleged that the defendants conspired with Armenian officials to proffer so-called "Letters of Refusal" that declined to substantiate certain persons' Armenian citizenship even when that information may have been available in state records.

According to U.S. officials, in two dozen cases known to the investigators, the defendants had sought and in most cases received payments of between $15,000 and $35,000 for each such letter.

But as Mr. Hovhannissian, the current consul general, explained, more often than not there are legitimate reasons for the letters to be issued.

"The refusal to allow a ‘subject' back is not an extraordinary decision," Mr. Hovhannissian told the Armenian Reporter. "Up to 90 percent of deportees have no passports and refuse to provide the U.S. investigators with their personal details."

According to Mr. Hovhannissian, so far this year 16 deportation cases were referred to the Consulate General in Los Angeles, of which three were refused.

Investigation findings

The U.S. investigation was led by Vardan Grigoryan, an ICE Special Agent in Charge and a native speaker of Armenian.

In the complaints, Mr. Grigoryan described four separate investigations that involved undercover informants who were also native Armenian speakers, with Mr. Grigoryan himself going undercover and posing as an individual seeking to prevent someone's deportation – in contravention of U.S. laws.

Based on evidence gathered from audio- and video-taped conversations and surveillance, Mr. Grigoryan built a case against five individuals, and U. S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien filed indictments against them.

The individuals charged include Norair Ghalumian, 52, a resident of Burbank and, from 1999 to 2002, consul at the Armenian Consulate General in Los Angeles. (The position of consul is below that of consul general, who leads the Armenian mission.) Mr. Ghalumian, who established permanent residence in the United States in 2003, allegedly acted together with Elvis Madatyan, 47, a Glendale businessperson.

Three separate complaints were filed against Hakop Hovanesyan, 54, a Glendale resident since the late 1980s and a U.S. citizen who worked as an aide to Armenian consuls general in Los Angeles from 1995, when the consulate was first established, until 2007; Margarita Mkrtchyan, 41, an immigration attorney practicing since 2004 and also a Glendale resident; and Oganes Nardos, 36 (also known as Hovanes Harutiunian), a substance-abuse counselor and resident of Valencia, Calif., who received refugee asylum in the United States in 2001.

According to The Associated Press, Mark Werksman, a lawyer for Mr. Hovanesyan, said his client intended to challenge the charges in court.

Reactions from other defendants were not available at press time.

The complaints also mentioned Arthur Madoyan and inferred that he was one of at least two Armenian officials the defendants allegedly dealt with to secure the letters. The other official was not identified and Mr. Madoyan has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Mr. Madoyan is currently the acting head of the Migration Division in the Consular Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to the ministry's website. From 2004 to 2008, he worked as an aide to consuls general in Los Angeles.

Defendants plead “not guilty” in alleged consular scam
by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Friday August 28, 2009

WASHINGTON - Five individuals, including two former staff members at the Armenian Consulate in Los Angeles, have entered "not guilty" pleas in four separate cases in which they are charged with conspiracy to obstruct U.S. immigration proceedings.

The pleas were entered at the federal court in Santa Ana, Calif., on August 24, The Associated Press reported the same day citing Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandy Leal.

All defendants have been released on bail, pending trial, which is due to begin on October 6 following a status conference in late September.

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