Narrow and wan, Lucy Khoury hunched in her husband's office below portraits of Ronald Reagan and Jesus Christ and cried. The 42-year-old Lebanese immigrant lamented that her husband, a self-styled minister, gives away almost everything, leaving barely enough money to buy insulin for her diabetes.
"I need medicine, I need food, but he gives it all away," she said. "My husband, he don't have nothing. Money comes into his pocket, he gives it away."
Her words were in stark contrast to evidence compiled against Elie Khoury by state officials, who allege that he operated a con game that gouged hundreds of immigrant clients.
A lawsuit filed against Khoury last month by the state attorney general's office accuses him of collecting up to $2,000 apiece from immigrants to argue their cases for political and religious asylum in Immigration and Naturalization Service proceedings.
It is illegal to charge for immigration consulting without INS authorization. In the suit, Deputy Atty. Gen. Jerry Smilowitz charged that Khoury tells his clients he has earned such authorization, when in fact he has been denied the status four times.
On Friday, a judge froze the bank accounts of Khoury's operation--The Kingdom and World Mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ--under a permanent injunction that bars him from providing immigration consulting services for a fee.
Three days later, Khoury appeared to resume business as usual. In the presence of a reporter, he told an immigrant that he would continue to process work papers. He told the client, Louis Mazariegos, to return later in the week to consult about his case. He did not mention the court order to Mazariegos.
In an interview outside the mission a few minutes later, Mazariegos said he paid Khoury $500 to prepare legal residency forms for him and his family. Mazariegos said he has been living in Los Angeles for eight years and is applying for legal working papers under the amnesty provisions of the Immigration Reform Act of 1986.
"I haven't noticed anything bad," Mazariegos said. "It was the lowest I could find to do this anywhere."
With unpaid bills and investigations of his operation mounting, Khoury's 5-year-old mission could be in trouble.
Even before the suit against him was filed, a food bank from which Khoury gets the food he distributes cut off his supply. He has not paid more than $1,600 he has owed the food bank since February, a food bank official said.
The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, under a federal food distribution system, acts as a clearinghouse for charitable organizations that buy food from it for nominal fees. The organizations are required by law to give away the food they receive. Last week, the food bank launched an investigation into reports that Khoury is instead selling the food.
No Fees Permitted
"He cannot ask for a donation. He cannot ask for a membership fee. He cannot ask for a fee of any kind. The food must be given to the needy client," said Doris Bloch, executive director of the food bank. "That is part of the federal regulations which govern the way we handle donated food."
A check Khoury wrote to the food bank bounced, Bloch said, and a certified letter requesting payment for the food was returned unopened. Bloch said she does not expect to recover the money.
Under the detailed court order issued by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Eli Chernow on Friday, Khoury is prohibited from dispensing his services for a fee. The judge's order does not bar Khoury from distributing food to the needy, but may bar him from charging for such food, Smilowitz said.
Khoury says he has no money to pay the food bank, or even to pay his rent. Records show that he and his wife own no property and live in two tiny rooms in back of their Glendale Boulevard mission.
Evidence, Smilowitz said, points overwhelmingly to a scheme that bilks immigrants out of what little money they have. But no one knows where the money collected by Khoury goes.
"It's very intriguing," Smilowitz said. "He doesn't live high on the hog. He doesn't dress fancy, doesn't drive fancy cars. At the same time, he doesn't pay small claims court judgments ruled against him, he opens and closes bank accounts with regularity and he never refunds his clients. I'll be honest with you--we really have no idea where the money has gone."
Khoury said he gives his money away. In an interview in his cluttered office Sunday, he frantically rifled through checks and documents that he said prove his storefront mission is on the level.
Khoury had just given an impassioned sermon attended by about 25 Lebanese and Armenian immigrants in which he claimed repeatedly that the attorney general's office is persecuting him and undercutting the mission of his church.
Sermon in English
But Khoury's sermon was delivered in English--which his immigrant audience doesn't understand. His band of congregants didn't mind. And his comments appeared to be directed not to the people seeking his help, but to a Times reporter attending the service.
The immigrants in attendance--many of whom arrived in the United States less than a month ago--waited patiently. They had plastic bags in their back pockets to hold the food they had heard the mission gives away after Sunday services.
Khoury, however, was not giving the food away. He asked for a $10 donation from each recipient, which he said would help defray the cost of what he paid the food bank.
Clad in a purple robe and a scarlet skullcap, he dispensed the food from a back-yard storage shed. The immigrants handed over the money for the shopping bags of canned and packaged food.
"We give him $10 and he gives us food," Vartan Vartanian said through a translator. "I don't care what he says in his sermon. If I could get the same amount of food for $10 in a market, believe me, I wouldn't come here."
Smilowitz said the court order forbids Khoury from providing service to clients who have already paid him. "If he wants to refund someone and keep working on his case for free, well, I guess that's fine," Smilowitz said. "But Rev. Khoury never does anything for free."