(Amy Taxin, The Associated Press) - A former Armenian consul in Los Angeles, a former consular employee and an immigration attorney have been arrested after a two-year investigation into an alleged document scam aimed at helping immigrants avoid deportation, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
Norair Ghalumian, who served as consul in Los Angeles from 1999 to 2003, and four other people are accused of obtaining and selling letters to immigrants facing deportation to help block their removal to Armenia, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said.
The letters stated that Armenia would not issue a travel document for the immigrants, essentially preventing the U.S. government from sending them to Armenia, ICE officials said in a written statement.
ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the defendants sold at least two dozen letters and acted independently of each other. She said officials continue to investigate the letters, which were sold for as much as $35,000 each.
Ghalumian, 52, of Burbank, and the other defendants are charged with obstructing ICE proceedings, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, the statement said. They were scheduled to appear in federal court in Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon.
The other defendants, according to the statement, are Hakop Hovanesyan, 54, of Glendale, a former consular employee; Margarita Mkrtchyan, 41, of Glendale, an immigration attorney; Oganes Nardos, 36, of Valencia; and Elvis Madatyan, 47, of Glendale. Mkrtchyan, Hovanesyan, Ghalumian and Madatyan were released on bail. Nardos' hearing was continued until August 7, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.
Hovanesyan's attorney Mark Werksman said the charges against his client were unfounded and would be challenged in court. Mkrtchyan's attorney Shepard Kopp declined to discuss details of the case, but said his client says she's innocent. Nardos' wife deferred to him for comment. Attempts to reach Ghalumian and Madatyan were not immediately successful.
Court papers describe how the defendants told undercover agents they could buy a so-called "letter of refusal" denying a deportee's return to Armenia. The agents paid the contacts and were promised letters, which in some cases were arranged by an unnamed contact in Armenia, according to a criminal complaint. In other cases, an official who worked at the consulate in Los Angeles between 2004 and 2008 made the arrangements.
According to one of the complaints, Mkrtchyan told an undercover agent that once a letter was issued, a deportee would likely be released from custody under ICE's supervision and granted work authorization. She told the agent she didn't make a profit from getting the letters and usually did so hoping they would later become her clients. Other defendants negotiated a commission for themselves, court papers showed.
Grigor Hovhannissian, who became Armenia's consul general in Los Angeles earlier this year, said he was shocked by the arrests. He said he expected Armenian officials would probe the matter and collaborate closely with U.S. officials in their investigation. "These allegations affect the standing of our country, something which we cannot compromise," Hovhannissian said.
ICE said some of the deportees who purchased the letters had been convicted of felonies. The agency arrested the defendants Monday night and Tuesday morning. Agents found additional refusal letters and official consular stationary during searches of a travel agency operated by Hovanesyan and of Mkrtchyan's and Nardos' homes, ICE's statement said.