A Family's Bid for Justice After Death

The day after Christmas, Avedis Kasparian died. He was only 55 when his heart gave out, but in many ways his life had fulfilled the American dream.

His death, however, was another matter.

His name may not be familiar. Los Angeles' Armenian-language newspapers published the only obituaries. Still, if there is hope for justice after death, then the ghost of Avedis Kasparian should haunt county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich for years to come.

Remember that nasty business about how Antonovich meddled in court proceedings on behalf of some campaign contributors? Kasparian was the guy who got screwed.

And yet when it was all over--after an appeals court overturned a jury's judgment, and after the state Supreme Court declined to hear Kasparian's appeal--Antonovich shamelessly summed up the episode as "an example of the frivolous lawsuits that help clog up the courts."

Frivolous? Eleven out of 12 jurors didn't think so.

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A frivolous lawsuit is one that has no basis in fact or law. At any rate, "frivolous" is not a word easily associated with the late Avedis Kasparian. He was a man who had fled the oppression of Soviet Armenia and found work in Los Angeles as a garbage man. Then he became a hotel maintenance worker and later chief of maintenance. He bought real estate and became a millionaire.

In 1988, a dispute between Kasparian and some business partners led to a lawsuit before Superior Court Judge Eric E. Younger. The case was pending when Kasparian's estranged partners met with Antonovich, donated $13,000 to his campaign and told him about their business troubles. Antonovich agreed to call Judge Younger, a childhood friend, to offer what he later called a "character reference" for one of Kasparian's rivals, whom he described as "an immigrant who came up the hard way." This was true of Kasparian, not the partners.

Younger later said that, when he realized the improper purpose of Antonovich's call, he changed the subject as quickly as possible. The judge said he initially believed his old friend's actions to be "mildly dumb." Their friendship was such that, the following year, in 1989, Antonovich delivered a eulogy for the judge's father, former state Atty. Gen. Evelle J. Younger. But years later Younger was pained to learn about the campaign contributions that preceded Antonovich's call. What had once seemed merely a clumsy and inappropriate gesture suddenly reeked of influence peddling.

When Younger removed himself from the case, he cited Antonovich's call as the reason. That revelation, along with Antonovich's campaign finance statements, stunned Kasparian. Before his estranged partners had first met with Antonovich, they were nearing a settlement in which Kasparian would have been bought out for about $2 million. But after speaking with Antonovich, the partners abruptly halted negotiations. Bruce Altschuld, Kasparian's attorney, suggests: "They thought they'd gotten to the judge."

Eventually, Kasparian accepted an $800,000 buyout, a disappointing figure that in part reflected the downturn in real estate values. Kasparian figured Antonovich cost him about $1.2 million. So he sued Antonovich and the county.

Kasparian, Altschuld says, wasn't just in it for the money. The attorney says his client used to tell him how fortunate he was to have been born in a country where corruption was the exception, not the rule.

"He was really offended by the conduct of Antonovich. . . . The principle of this case was enormously important to him because he came from a system where it wasn't fair."

An Orange County jury voted 11 to 1 to award Kasparian the $1.2 million, plus $2.3 million in punitive damages for the civil conspiracy. His triumph, however, was temporary. On Sept. 14, the judgment was reversed by an appeals court. The panel called Antonovich's actions "reprehensible" but found no evidence that he had affected the buyout negotiations.

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Frivolous? Lucy Kasparian doesn't think so. Avedis Kasparian's younger daughter is a 20-year-old USC student who believes justice may yet be served. Her family's suspicion that politics tainted the appeals process has prompted them to seek an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. She is seeking a lawyer to press the case on the federal level.

The Kasparians blame their father's death on "the whole ordeal" that began with Antonovich's phone call to Younger. Diabetes was compounded by the stress and the financial troubles. The downward spiral led to a stroke and finally the fatal seizure. At the end, he couldn't afford health insurance.

Lucy Kasparian had a request of me: "Please do not make your article into some sob story."

I've tried to avoid that. All considered, a sob story would seem rather frivolous.

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