A former Armenian consul, 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, officials said on 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, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials said.
The letters stated that Armenia would not issue a travel document for the immigrants, essentially preventing the US government from sending them to Armenia, the 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 US$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 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 extended until Aug. 7, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the US 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.
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, a criminal complaint said. In other cases, an official who worked at the consulate in Los Angeles between 2004 and last year made the arrangements.