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An Outward Show of Political Influence

Times Staff Writers

On paper, Gary Nalbandian would appear to be an influential figure in Southern California law enforcement.

He has served as director of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homeland Security Support Unit, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Executive Council and the Bureau of Justice for the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office.

But Nalbandian is not a professional cop. The only paid law enforcement position he has held is as a volunteer reserve deputy with the Los Angeles County sheriff -- salary, $1 a year. His real job is running a tire store in Glendora.

He is, however, a major political fundraiser for Southern California law enforcement officials. Over the last nine years, Nalbandian has tapped a network of businessmen and acquaintances, most of them from the Armenian community, to raise tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, Riverside Sheriff Bob Doyle and San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Mike Ramos.

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The three officials subsequently authorized the issuance of badges, identification cards or other official-looking credentials for many of the donors, designating them members of groups including Baca’s “Homeland Security Support Unit,” Doyle’s “Sheriff’s Executive Council” and Ramos’ “Bureau of Justice.”

The law enforcement officials insist the credentials were appropriate, since the men did important volunteer work aiding crime victims, translating Arabic-language documents for investigators and facilitating anti-terrorism activities.

But critics say the granting of badges and titles to political supporters creates the appearance that they are rewards for donations.

“We were getting a lot of new members and, believe me, they were not coming to see new faces or to eat the food,” said Vahe Maranian, the owner of a La Crescenta auto electric shop and a former member of Doyle’s Executive Council.

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“They were there for the badges.”

Although the badges issued by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office are not identical to those used by sworn officers, they bear similar stars or other symbols and official department names. It is a misdemeanor in California to distribute badges to the public that are likely to be confused with real law enforcement badges.

Doyle and Ramos said they believed their badges were so different from those used by sworn deputies that they did not violate state law, but both men have subsequently asked Nalbandian to disband the law enforcement support groups and return the badges and identification cards.

Baca gave badges only to the dozen or so members of Nalbandian’s group who went through training to become level-three reserve deputies, volunteers who help sworn officers with routine tasks. But he authorized department photo identification cards and official name tags for many of the others.

The donors and insiders who received the badges or identification have given more than $150,000 since 1997 to political campaigns for Baca, Doyle and Ramos.

The biggest contributions went to Doyle, who received at least $93,000 from Nalbandian’s group between January 2002 and June 2005 -- more than 20% of his fundraising total during that period.

Steve Remige, president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said issuing badges and law enforcement credentials to politically connected insiders is an insult to sworn deputies and officers.

“You work, you sweat, at times you bleed for that badge,” Remige said. To give badges to people who didn’t go through academy training “is a slap in the face to the general law enforcement community,” he said.

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Doyle said he told Nalbandian to collect the badges in July because he wasn’t utilizing the groups’ services and because he was warned at a conference about the ethical problems of issuing badges to civilians.

Doyle said the badges were in no way a reward for campaign contributions. “I can’t tell you who has specifically given me the money among that group, and I can tell you I have never made any promise to anyone in regard to campaign money,” he said.

In a series of interviews for this article, Ramos offered conflicting accounts of his role in issuing the badges.

In December, Ramos said Nalbandian was wholly responsible for making and distributing the badges for his Bureau of Justice, which was set up to support and assist Ramos’ office.

“Nothing came from me. I think Gary went out and got badges for the Bureau of Justice and I put a stop to it. It was giving the wrong impression they were employees of the district attorney’s office,” Ramos said.

But in an interview last month, Ramos said he had refreshed his memory by reviewing his files and now recalled authorizing the badges. He also said he and Nalbandian went badge shopping together shortly after his 2002 election victory.

Ramos said he asked Nalbandian to return the badges in October 2003 because he came to realize “it looks horrible” to award badges to campaign donors and that the name “Bureau of Justice” sounded too much like a real police organization.

Baca, on the other hand, said he has no intention of shutting down the group Nalbandian heads for him, the Homeland Security Support Unit, or asking its roughly 50 members to return their identification cards, which resemble those that sworn deputies carry in their wallets.

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“We could be the next [city] that’s attacked. I know one thing, Los Angeles is on the list. We’re a priority target. I’m not going to wait for the federal government’s bureaucracy,” Baca said. “I’m going to build a network that’s so strong that any terrorist that thinks they can fly under the radar screen in Los Angeles County, it ain’t going to happen. Gary Nalbandian understands how to do that.”

Baca also defended his issuing of official identification to Nalbandian’s volunteers. “What are you going to do with a name badge? What are you going to do with an ID card that’s going to cause someone to help you?” Baca said.

At least three men who received the credentials, including Nalbandian, displayed them or mentioned their positions in encounters with police or security officials, in some cases raising concerns of misuse, according to documents and interviews.

Nalbandian presented a police lieutenant with a business card identifying him as a Los Angeles County sheriff’s commander when he went to the Arcadia police station in September after receiving news that an acquaintance had been arrested for shoplifting.

Believing, because of the card, that Nalbandian was a top sheriff’s executive, the lieutenant allowed Nalbandian into a secure area of the station to await the woman’s release.

Although the woman received no special treatment, Arcadia Police Chief Bob Sanderson said that the card made him believe that Nalbandian was seeking an “unspoken favor.” Sanderson said he was concerned enough to report the incident to Baca’s staff.

Nalbandian defended his involvement in the Arcadia arrest. He said he presented his business card simply as a courtesy, as he does to “every person I meet.” He said his first words to the Arcadia lieutenant were: “I’m not here for no favors. I want to help the family bail her out.”

Homeland Security Support Unit member Raffi Mesrobian displayed both his Los Angeles sheriff’s ID card and his Riverside sheriff’s Executive Council badge to state agents serving a search warrant at his Glendale naturopathy office during a Medi-Cal fraud investigation last year.

A state Department of Justice investigator wrote in his report that the identification card “did not distinguish whether Mesrobian was a sworn peace officer, a civilian employee or volunteer.” Mesrobian is not a reserve deputy and has had no law enforcement training.

“In fact ... the official photo identification card would suggest that Mesrobian was a deputy or official of the Sheriff’s Department instead of an unpaid volunteer or member of a support council,” Special Agent J. Timothy Fives wrote in his report.

Mesrobian, who has not been prosecuted, said he made a bad decision.

“I’m really sorry for showing them the badges,” Mesrobian said. “The only thing I thought was, ‘Is there anything I can do to help? I’m a member of the sheriff’s advisory council.’ ”

Nalbandian said he suspended Mesrobian from the Homeland Security Support Unit and revoked his credentials after learning of the incident.

Riverside County Sheriff’s Executive Council member Vahe Maranian said his badge gained him entry to a secure area at Burbank Airport in 2003.

After first being told that he would have to wait at baggage claim for his elderly parents, Maranian said, “I let them know I was with the Executive Council of the Riverside County sheriff. I showed my badge, and they let me in -- right inside, I passed right through security.”

Maranian said an airport security supervisor then allowed him to wait at the gate for his parents.

“The simple reason they let me through was that I was with the Executive Council of the Sheriff’s Department,” Maranian said. “I wasn’t some stranger. Those [airport security] supervisors aren’t stupid. They know who they’re dealing with. That supervisor felt comfortable with my spirit, and that badge I had was not a phony. It was real and numbered. To get that from the sheriff means you get respect.”

Not all members of Nalbandian’s group felt comfortable displaying their credentials. Artour Khachatrian, a Glendale dentist who contributed $10,000 to Doyle’s 2002 campaign, said he kept his badge in a drawer at his home and never used it. He said he was concerned that the badges would eventually become an issue.

“I knew, sooner or later, this conversation would happen,” Khachatrian said. “Too many people were having badges.... Too many regular people like me, a simple dentist, can use those badges in many different ways.”

Nalbandian’s rise in the law enforcement world would have seemed unlikely in 1984, when he sat in a San Bernardino County jail cell, accused of trying to buy stolen cigarettes to sell in the Colton gas station he and his brother, Tanos, operated at the time.

The brothers were charged with attempted possession of stolen property -- a misdemeanor -- for allegedly paying an undercover police decoy for the stolen smokes, according to court records and interviews. Nalbandian’s brother pleaded no contest and was sentenced to probation. The charges against Nalbandian were dismissed.

Nalbandian, a Lebanese immigrant and not a native English speaker, said the case was the result of a misunderstanding.

“They came in and told my brother they’re going to sell him some hot cigarettes.... In Lebanon, hot is the coffee that we drink and the Pepsi is cold. That’s what we know, hot and cold,” Nalbandian said. “I wasn’t involved in anything, except he [Tanos] asked for the money and I gave him the money.”

A squarely built, energetic man of 42, Nalbandian said his childhood dream was to work in law enforcement. His store is covered with photos showing him and elected officials ranging from Baca to President Bush.

Nalbandian moved to the United States from Lebanon in 1982 and worked a series of jobs in the automotive industry before opening his Glendora tire store in 1993.

During Baca’s first campaign for sheriff in 1997, Nalbandian introduced friends and acquaintances to the candidate and organized grass-roots fundraisers. Members of Nalbandian’s groups have donated more than $30,000 to Baca’s campaigns, according to records.

After his election, Baca invited Nalbandian to apply to become a volunteer deputy. After undergoing 64 hours of training, the tire salesman was named a reserve and given a badge and a uniform.

Reserve deputies are asked to serve 20 hours per month for $1 a year. Level-three deputies like Nalbandian do not go on patrol or make arrests but handle such tasks as crowd control or transportation, said Capt. Joe Garza, who supervises the department’s reserve program. He said that Nalbandian, whom Baca made an honorary “commander,” will soon begin also doing translation for the sheriff.

Baca’s staff has approved concealed-weapons permits for Nalbandian and for Gary Jerjerian, owner of a wheel company and assistant director of the Homeland Security Support Unit.

In 2001, Nalbandian became active in campaigns for Ramos and Doyle. After their elections, the two law enforcers handed out badges to members, including many donors, of groups they authorized Nalbandian to start.

Ramos said he also provided Nalbandian with an electronic copy of his signature to use on official correspondence and named him “chief” of the Bureau of Justice. The tire salesman registered his Crown Victoria, the same model driven by many police and sheriff’s executives, in both his own name and that of the Bureau of Justice, according to DMV records. Nalbandian said “the guys,” members of his volunteer group, paid for the $25,500 vehicle.

Several members of Nalbandian’s volunteer groups said they were asked to pay $1,000 initiation fees and were charged $100 monthly dues, often in cash, at dinner meetings in a Pasadena meeting hall.

Nalbandian said the fees were for membership in a social club called the Executive Council of Southern California, and were not a requisite to getting a badge. He declined to say what happened to the money that was collected by the club.

“What we do is personal with the club. It’s nobody’s business,” he said.

Several members said they were not aware of the Executive Council of Southern California. They said they paid to attend dinner meetings in Pasadena and discussed the affairs of the Riverside Sheriff’s Executive Council and the Homeland Security Support Unit.

Former members of the Riverside group gave The Times copies of Sheriff’s Executive Council meeting agendas reporting that $6,850 had been raised in January 2004 and $6,600 in March 2004.

Asked why agendas would say that thousands of dollars had been raised by the council, Nalbandian shrugged and did not respond. At another point, he said they could be computer-generated forgeries.

Rick Hamilton, owner of Sun Badge Co., now based in Ontario, said Nalbandian paid for Riverside and San Bernardino county badges in cash, which he carried in a small purse.

“Every time we made badges for him, it was a rush,” Hamilton said.

Baca said he was concerned about some of Nalbandian’s actions, including the fact his business cards didn’t make clear that he was a reserve and not a regular deputy. But the sheriff said he’s willing to face criticism to do what he thinks is best for public safety.

“I’m taking a risk in having volunteer support groups,” he said. “I know that. I’m not afraid of the risks. The benefit of saving lives from terrorism requires a certain amount of risk.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Nalbandian’s influence

In 2002, San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Mike Ramos authorized tire salesman Gary Nalbandian to set up the Bureau of Justice, a group of businessmen, most of whom had donated to his campaign. The following men were then issued badges and identification cards:

*--* Name Rank Occupation Donation to Ramos Gary A. Nalbandian Chief Tire store 0 owner Gary H. Jerjerian Assistant Chief Wheel company $7,800 owner Ramzi Bader Deputy Chief Electronics $1,200 company owner Joe Samuelian Deputy Chief Street-sweepi $6,000 ng company owner Avo Papazian Deputy Chief Auto body $1,000 shop owner Joe Mehanna Commander Former vice $200 president, Ford dealership Fadi Chakbazof Commander Controller, 0 bus company Andre Skaf Commander Investment $1,000 advisor Hovig Yeghiayan Commander Watch $1,000 repairman Jan Qualkenbush Lieutenant Tow company $1,250 owner Salim Missi Lieutenant Former $2,500 official with a natural food company Nick Muradyan Lieutenant Tire company $2,000 president Vatche Kasumyan Lieutenant Real estate $1,800 broker Mike Heusser Lieutenant Former Ford $300 dealership owner Sarkis Harmandayan Lieutenant Jeweler $2,000

*--*

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Sources: Campaign finance disclosure statements, Sun Badge Co., interviews with Bureau of Justice members


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