Arash Hakhamian was just a child in 1989 when his family came to the United States. But it wasn’t long before he was looking for a place to park tuition money he’d earned to put himself through dental school.
Like many Iranian Jews who immigrated to the Los Angeles area, he skipped the big American investment firms, instead turning to a name he knew: Namvar.
The Namvar family’s patriarch, Eilel, had been a deeply respected money lender in Iran. He had resumed work in L.A. with the help of his children. The standout among them was Ezri, a quick-thinking businessman who eventually amassed billions in commercial real estate holdings.
Over the years, Hakhamian and his family directed their savings to Ezri Namvar. When times were good, they enjoyed returns hard to find elsewhere.
Then the economy hit the skids. Many investors who tried to access their money found they couldn’t get their money from Namvar, panicking many of the city’s Iranian Jews.
Last week, a federal grand jury indicted Ezri Namvar on criminal fraud charges, alleging that in 2008 he misappropriated millions in real estate proceeds he’d promised to shelter for clients. He is scheduled to be arraigned Monday at the federal courthouse in Los Angeles.
Namvar, through his attorney, has denied any wrongdoing and vowed to be vindicated in court.
Authorities allege that Namvar used the money to help prop up his own troubled commercial property business, which had attracted hundreds of investors including Hakhamian. Near the end of 2008, angry clients forced Namvar into an involuntary bankruptcy, alleging that he owed them more than $525 million.
Namvar’s earlier success was anchored by strong ties to the city’s relatively affluent community of Iranian Jews. Many of those same families now feel betrayed by one of their own. Although the list of clients allegedly bilked runs deep with millionaires, many like Hakhamian, who put in $40,000, were modest investors. For them, the loss has been particularly painful.
“All of that money was made $10 an hour,” Hakhamian said. "$10 at a time.”
Financial scams within tight-knit ethnic and religious communities are common. But Namvar’s alleged fraud shines light on a particularly well-to-do immigrant group. After the 1979 Iran revolution, many Iranians fled their country for Los Angeles. The relatively well-educated immigrant community, now estimated at more than 200,000, is the largest outside of Iran. Although just a tiny minority in Iran, Jews represent a significant portion of the Iranian community in Los Angeles. Many have become successful entrepreneurs and professionals in their adopted home.
Like many families, the Hakhamians left Iran in a hurry, taking little with them. Hakhamian’s father, Kaye, loaded him and his brothers into the family car and shifted into neutral, rolling quietly out of their Tehran garage, cautious not to alert the neighbors.
In their first years in America, Hakhamian remembers watching his father rise early, pour tea into a large thermos and leave their small Beverly Hills apartment daily for a local park or library. A dentist back in Iran, Kaye was cramming to pass the board exams that would allow him practice his profession in the United States.
He passed that work ethic to his children. As a teenager, Hakhamian began earning the money he would eventually invest with Namvar. Through high school and college he tutored, trained camp counselors, blended smoothies and delivered fur coats. Through word of mouth he launched a business writing and revising college admissions essays for other students.
Eventually he scraped together $40,000 to invest with Namvar. Hakhamian planned to use those funds to pay his way through USC dental school so that he could join his father in a family practice.
When rumors began spreading in 2008 that Namvar was refusing investors access to their money, Hakhamian rushed to Namvar’s well-appointed West Los Angeles office to ask for his investment back. He said Namvar returned just a fraction — and not until he showed bill collection letters from his university.
“No offense. I understand these [other] people are hurting too, but when someone has $20 million to invest, they probably have a good source of income,” Hakhamian said.
Sitting in the South Gate office where father and son now work as licensed dentists, the divide between the older and younger generation is clear. Kaye lost his life savings with Namvar. But like many older Iran-born investors, he had initially hoped to recoup his money through private, informal meetings led by leaders in the community. He said he’s now working with his daughter, a teenager, to craft a letter to President Obama, asking him to amend the Constitution to protect investors from suffering outcomes similar to his.
The younger Hakhamian placed his hand on his father’s knee, gently hushing him.
“This generation is why we’re not getting anywhere. They think they’re going to send a letter to Obama and he’s going to change the Constitution,” Hakhamian said. “This is the reason why Ezri wins.”
Hakhamian took a more combative approach. In a culture that emphasizes reputation, the young dentist followed Namvar for months to court, and even synagogue, holding giant banners meant to shame the real estate magnate. One read “Mr. Namvar Give Me My Tuition Money Back.”
His campaign reached a breaking point as he was standing outside Namvar’s West Los Angeles synagogue more than a year ago, his banners on full display. Some congregants scolded him for making such a show on the Sabbath. But others nodded in support. Hagheteh, they said in Persian. “It’s your right.”
Suddenly Namvar, his wife, the rabbi and others emerged from the synagogue and confronted Hakhamian. To the dentist’s shock, they asked him to join them inside the building. As a Levite — a member of the tribe of Levi, one of the 12 ancient tribes of Israel — Hakhamian was told his presence would make the services more complete.
He took a moment to gather himself. As he entered, Hakhamian saw Namvar sitting in the front row amid relatives and close friends. Hakhamian broke down in tears, overcome with hope. Finally, he thought, a breakthrough.
He composed himself, assisted in the service, then returned outside.
Someone had taken his signs, he said, still in disbelief months after the incident.
Hakhamian has since lost faith that he, or other investors, will get back much of their money. He’s resigned to working six to seven days a week, 10 or more hours a day, to pay off his student loans.
Even now, he’s conflicted, one minute denouncing Namvar, the next saying he believes Namvar is genuine about repaying his investors. His hope is to become an example for the community against risky investing.
“For me, I did it with the intention of people knowing the consequences of their actions. I want the next guy to know someone’s going to point you out.”