Top lawmakers call for probe into corruption in payments to Armenian Genocide victims

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Four influential California lawmakers this week called for an investigation into a $17.5 million class-action settlement on behalf of Armenian Genocide victims that a Times investigation found was tainted with fraud, embezzlement and a rejection rate of 92%.

U.S. Representatives Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) and Anna Eshoo (D-Menlo Park), the only Armenian Americans in Congress, along with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and State Senator Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said they were disgusted by the misconduct The Times detailed in a report last week.

“I am deeply concerned and outraged by the issues raised,” Portantino said in a statement. “The Armenian Genocide was a horrific historical atrocity and the descendants of those murdered should not be victimized or denied their rightful settlements.”

Three Armenian-American lawyers from Los Angeles, including prominent attorneys Mark Geragos and Brian Kabateck, secured the settlement with French insurance company AXA a decade and a half ago. The funds were supposed to compensate families of genocide victims with unpaid insurance policies and support Armenian charities selected by a French non-profit association.

The Times investigation found that the French nonprofit was never established; some of the money was sent to the pet charities of the attorneys involved in the case, including their alma mater; and hundreds of thousands of dollars were directed to bogus claimants. Less than 8% of claims submitted by Armenians worldwide have been approved, despite what in many cases was overwhelming evidence that the claimants were the rightful heirs.

“It’s clear from the dismal claims approval rate and pointing fingers that something is rotten in Denmark, or Glendale, or France as the case may be,” said Speier, co-chair of the Congressional Armenian Caucus, in a statement.

Schiff, who represents Glendale, home to a large Armenian community, and is chairman of the powerful House Intelligence Committee, said he was concerned about the “ordeal” faced by descendants of the genocide.

“I think all of us who read these stories were horrified that some of the survivors and their families could have been victimized again,” Schiff said in a statement. “I fully support an investigation to ensure that all of these survivors get the compensation they deserve.”

Eshoo agreed that “a full investigation” was “absolutely warranted”, adding: “It is shameful that fraudsters are taking advantage of the pain of the Armenian community.”

The settlement in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles was overseen by Judge Christina A. Snyder shortly after it was filed in 1999. The Times described how various parties – the Armenian Justice Department, the plaintiffs, a lead attorney in the case and a court – named the French settlement council – expressed concerns to Snyder about the handling of claims and settlement funds over a period of years.

Among the irregularities were the granting of some $575,000 to a Syrian who had never applied for compensation, and payments totaling $400,000 to an Iraqi whose existence could not be verified. . Some of these funds were converted to cashier’s checks in Southern California. Additionally, at least $750,000 that was supposed to go to religious organizations never arrived, church officials told The Times.

Snyder ignited investigative efforts to uncover misconduct, but repeatedly denied a full audit of the rules.

“The court’s refusal to grant an independent audit is equally baffling,” Speier said in the statement.

Related: Read the Times investigation in Armenian

Snyder previously told The Times that the code of judicial conduct prohibited him from speaking about the settlement. She officially closed the case in 2016. Geragos and Kabateck, both descendants of genocide survivors, denied any wrongdoing in the representatives’ statements.

They blamed others for the problems in the claims process, including other lawyers and a claims administrator, and pointed out that millions of dollars had gone to Armenian charitable causes. Kabateck’s representative noted that the money they sent to his and Geragos alma mater, Loyola Law School, was used to establish a genocide law center. Both noted that despite complaints about the settlement to the California State Bar, which oversees the legal profession, and law enforcement, there have been no criminal charges against the two attorneys or no findings of misconduct on their part.

The Times investigation relied on newly unsealed case files, emails between attorneys and confidential settlement records. Authorities previously took action against three other lawyers as part of the settlement. A Beverly Hills attorney, Berj Boyajian, did not contest in Superior Court a felony and misdemeanor charge related to making false statements to the state bar and ultimately served no jail time. He later resigned his law degree.

The bar moved against the legal licenses of Vartkes Yeghiayan, a Glendale lawyer who worked on the cases with Geragos and Kabateck, and his wife for allegedly embezzling charity money. The case against her was dismissed. Yeghiayan died before the trial.

Some Armenians in France and the United States have campaigned to hold other settler figures to account. Just last year, a member of the court-appointed French settlement board urged the Los Angeles County prosecutor to launch a new investigation and similar requests have been made in recent years to the state bar. . There is no statute of limitations for investigations initiated by the bar into possible misconduct by a lawyer.

Speier, the congresswoman for Bay Area, raised the possibility of an investigation by the state auditor or the state insurance commissioner.

Portantino said he wanted “continued investigation and transparency until legitimate recipients are fairly compensated and all potential wrongdoing is exposed and properly addressed.”

The settlement and a previous case against insurer New York Life were welcomed by Armenians in the mid-2000s. At the time, the community was still fighting for the US government and others to recognize the 1915 genocide as a historical fact. President Biden finally acknowledged the genocide last year.

In 2018, the Armenian Bar Association. – a professional organization for Armenian-American lawyers – celebrated Snyder at its annual banquet with Kabateck, one of the attorneys in the AXA case, proclaiming, “Every judge should take lessons from the Honorable Christina Snyder.” .

In the wake of the Times investigation, the Armenian Bar Assn. expressed “deep sadness and concern” over the involvement of Armenian-American lawyers in the irregularities.

“If true, these allegations not only violate the ethical aspirations of members of the Armenian Bar Association, but represent a serious violation of the core values ​​of our organization,” the group’s board said in a statement. .

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