Plea Agreements End Baby-Selling Inquiry in O.C.

Times Staff Writer

An Irvine woman once accused of running an international baby-selling operation pleaded guilty Thursday to a single count of wire fraud and has agreed to a 21-month prison term and fines.

Marianne Gati, 54, made international headlines when federal authorities alleged that she had arranged the sale of as many as 30 Hungarian infants, some for as much as $80,000.

The plea marks the end of a seven-year legal battle in which prosecutors struggled to build a baby-selling case against Gati. In the end, prosecutors focused not on the actually selling but on the finances of Gati's operation.

"It is illegal to sell a child," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel McCurrie. "She advertised that [she was] conducting legitimate adoptions, but they never told the adoptive parents that the Hungarian birth parents were being paid."

In addition to Gati's plea, her husband, Thomas, 52, pleaded guilty to filing a tax return in 1994 that failed to disclose income made on the adoptions. He has agreed to a one-year probation, along with potential fines and restitution.

The couple will appear in federal court in Santa Ana on April 14, when U.S. District Judge Alicemarie Stotler will decide whether to approve the agreements. The judge also will determine the amount of fines at that hearing.

Lawyers representing the Gatis could not be reached Wednesday evening, and a man who answered the telephone at the Gati residence declined to comment.

The case began in 1996, when federal authorities accused her of bringing as many as 30 poor, pregnant women into the United States, then selling their babies to wealthy California couples.

Gati insisted, however, that the adoptions were legitimate, and her lawyers said the truth would become known at trial.

Prosecutors at the time said Gati provided airline tickets and documents for the Hungarian women to come to Orange County to deliver their babies between February 1993 and June 1996.

In court papers, authorities accused her of promising to pay each mother "$1,000 for a baby with dark features and $12,000 for a baby with light features."

Despite the sensational allegations, Gati was indicted only on charges of tax evasion. Prosecutors dropped the criminal complaint after a judge ruled that documents seized from Gati's home were obtained illegally.

The case gained new steam in April 2001, though, when a federal grand jury indicted the pair on wire fraud and tax evasion charges. McCurrie said that the wire fraud indictment stemmed from the fact that Gati's adoption agency represented that it was legal, that it concealed the fact that parents were paid for their offspring, and that charges were inflated in order to pay for the babies.

Federal officials on Thursday declined to provide details on the status of those children or whether the government plans an additional action.

"These kids won't be ripped out of their homes in the next year," McCurrie said. "I don't want people to get that impression."

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