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California State Bar will investigate Armenian genocide victim payments

An exhibit and interactive art project called "iwitness" about the survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915.
Visitors browse through an exhibit and interactive art project called “iwitness” about the Armenian genocide of 1915 at Grand Park in 2015.
(Michael Robinson Chávez / Los Angeles Times)
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The chief prosecutor for the State Bar of California said Tuesday that it was taking a fresh look at attorney conduct in landmark Armenian genocide reparations cases following a Times investigation that detailed corruption and misdirection of funds in one of the settlements.

“The State Bar is reviewing these cases to determine whether there is any new information that would warrant further action,” said the bar’s chief trial counsel, George Cardona, a former federal prosecutor appointed last year to lead investigations and prosecutions at the agency that regulates the legal profession in California.

The bar previously disciplined one attorney and attempted to discipline two others in connection with the genocide litigation.

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“There was a terrible injustice done when descendants of those murdered in the Armenian Genocide were denied their rightful settlements,” Cardona said in his statement. He described those already prosecuted as “most directly responsible for these misappropriations” but added, “the State Bar has the responsibility to take action when it becomes aware of new evidence.”

In the mid-2000s, attorneys won a pair of legal settlements for $37.5 million in the names of Armenian genocide victims. But families who stepped forward to collect on behalf of ancestors in one settlement had their claims rejected at an astonishing rate of 92%.

March 23, 2022

Cardona’s announcement in a statement to The Times comes after four California lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), called for a probe into the misconduct the newspaper outlined.

The report last month drew on newly unsealed court records to explain how a $17.5-million settlement in 2005 for heirs of genocide victims was marred in subsequent years by a claims process that rejected 92% of applicants and sent money to sham claimants, relatives of a settlement administrator and a lawyer with no official role in the case. It also revealed irregularities in the distribution of charity funds, including more than $750,000 that Armenian church groups say they never received.

Three Armenian American attorneys — prominent Los Angeles lawyers Mark Geragos and Brian Kabateck and Glendale attorney Vartkes Yeghiayan — were lead counsel in the case. The bar received complaints about the three lawyers and others over the last decade from claimants and members of a court-appointed settlement board, according to court records and complaints submitted to authorities.

The bar took no action against Geragos or Kabateck but filed disciplinary cases against Yeghiayan and his wife, for allegedly funneling settlement money to family members, their law firm and nonprofits they controlled.

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Yeghiayan died before trial. His wife was cleared by a bar review panel.

An attorney from Beverly Hills who had endorsed and deposited settlement checks made out to heirs of genocide victims, Berj Boyajian, was suspended from the practice of law and later resigned. He was convicted in criminal court of two counts in connection with making false statements to the bar.

Estimates of the number of Armenians who perished vary widely, with historians offering a range of about 700,000 to 1.2 million.

March 23, 2022

Representatives for Geragos and Kabateck have told The Times they did nothing wrong, that they were not responsible for approving or denying claims and that others, including those prosecuted by the bar, bore the blame for the fraud in the case.

Kabateck said Tuesday that he had cooperated with the past bar probes and would continue to do so “because we have nothing to hide.”

“The true demonstrable facts are that our firm engaged in no wrongdoing of any kind,” he said in a statement.

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