U.S. law-enforcement officials have not yet approached their colleagues in Armenia about last week’s high-profile arrests of more than 80 alleged members of an ethnic Armenian gang in California, officials in Yerevan said on Monday.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the arrested individuals are among 100 suspects in California, Miami and Colorado charged with bank fraud, kidnapping, racketeering and health care fraud.
“Today's indictments allege literally hundreds of criminal acts in three states -- from extortion and kidnapping to firearms trafficking and health care fraud,” Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said on February 16.
The arrests followed a two-year investigation mainly targeting a Los Angeles-based gang known as Armenian Power. The gang is also suspected of involvement in identity theft and white-collar fraud.
A government source in Yerevan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that Armenian nationals are among the arrested suspects. Armenia’s Foreign Ministry refused to confirm that or comment on the broader case.
Shahen Tonoyan, a spokesman for the Office of the Prosecutor-General, argued that even if Armenian citizens were involved in the alleged crimes they will have to stand trial in the United States. He also said that U.S. investigators have so far not contacted Armenian law-enforcement bodies in connection with the case.
“We have received no requests of legal assistance from U.S. law-enforcement authorities in the investigation into the activities of that criminal group,” Tonoyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations has reportedly said that Armenian Power channeled some of the millions of dollars in illegal revenue allegedly earned by it into Armenia. Some Armenian media have claimed that gang leaders have maintained ties with Armenia’s underworld.
“These are personal views and assumptions that we don’t want to comment on,” said Tonoyan. “If the investigating body arrives at such conclusion, it will be a different matter.”
The Armenian press was rife with similar speculation following the arrests last October of dozens of suspected members of another Armenian-American criminal syndicate that allegedly filed some $100 million in fake claims to Medicare, a U.S. government health insurance program. Pro-opposition newspapers alleged that Armen Kazarian, the indicted ringleader in the case, has had close ties with high-ranking government officials in Armenia and their relatives.
The Armenian authorities strongly denied that. They also said they are ready to cooperate with U.S. investigators.
A team of FBI officials visited Yerevan and met with Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian later in October. Hovsepian’s office said they briefed him on the ongoing inquiry into the alleged insurance scam but did not ask for formal “legal assistance.”
“They have investigated crimes committed in their country and have still not approached us with any requests,” Tonoyan said, referring to the Medicare case.
Kazarian, 46, is known in Armenia as a crime figure nicknamed “Pzo.” According to the Armenian police, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1996 and is now a U.S. citizen.