Five nabbed in alleged letter scam

GLENDALE — A former Armenian consul, three Glendale residents and a substance abuse counselor have been arrested for allegedly selling immigration letters to undocumented convicted felons, including murderers and rapists, that allowed them to stay in the United States and avoid deportation.

The defendants — former Armenian consul Norair Ghalumian, 52, of Burbank; and Glendale residents Hakop Hovanesyan, 54; Margarita Mkrtchyan, 41; Elvis Madatyan, 47; and Valencia resident Oganes Nardos, 36 — were named in four separate criminal complaints for obstructing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement proceedings, federal officials said. They were all arrested Monday and Tuesday morning.

“They were working independently; it wasn’t a criminal organization in the sense that one was sort of the boss and the other were the minions,” said Jennifer Silliman, deputy special agent in charge for ICE’s Los Angeles-based office of investigations.

The arrests capped a two-year investigation into the alleged fraud scheme.

“They were all doing the same criminal scheme, which was providing these letters, and the Armenian community is small and close-knit, so it was all done by referrals,” Silliman said.

They allegedly sold more than two dozen letters of refusal, which are generally issued by consulates and embassies, stating that a country will not grant a travel document to a specific person, said ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice.

And there could be more letters circulating, officials said.

The letters block a person from being deported to a country. The five reportedly sold official letters from the Armenian Consulate for upward of $35,000.

The purchasers, who had been convicted for murder, attempted murder, rape, robbery and kidnapping, were facing deportation due to their offenses, which were committed in the U.S., Kice said.

Investigators are still determining whether they will deport or prosecute them, Silliman said.

“We are going to find out exactly who those people are, where they are and look at those cases on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “Whether or not we file federal charges, criminal charges or go after them administratively within immigration deportation, that’s to be determined.”

They used contacts in the Armenian government to obtain the letters, which were sent to ICE to prevent deportation, according to criminal complaints.

Investigators searched Mkrtchyan’s Beverly Hills law office, where they seized refusal letters and official Armenian Consulate stationery, according to ICE.

Calls to the Armenian Consulate were not returned Tuesday.

In September 2007, ICE investigators arranged a meeting between their informant and Madatyan to discuss the purchase of a letter. Madatyan then introduced the informant to Ghalumian, who agreed to assist in obtaining the letter, according to a criminal complaint.

Ghalumian worked as the Armenian consul in Los Angeles from 1999 to 2003, the complaint stated.

The pair had allegedly been selling letters for a few years.

According to the complaint, Hovanesyan had also been selling the letters for a couple of years up until June 22.

“Hovanesyan stated that this is not the first or the last time that they had done this,” the complaint stated regarding the sale of a letter. “He stated that previously it was much cheaper, ranging from $15,000 to $25,000. However, since the detained person is an Armenian citizen, the price is higher.”

Investigators searched his business, Regency Travel, at 725 S. Glendale Ave., and allegedly found receipts and money transfers for obtaining the letters from the Armenian Consulate, or payment to someone in the consulate for the letters.

Several calls made to Hovanesyan’s travel agency went unanswered.

ICE investigators became aware of Nardos’ activities when they discovered that he fraudulently obtained political asylum in the United States in May 2007, according to a criminal complaint.

He allegedly manufactured counterfeit documents while he lived in Germany from 1993 to 2001.

ICE investigators also discovered in May 2007 that he was selling letters of refusal from the Armenian Consulate in Los Angeles, the complaint stated.

An undercover investigator met with Nardos at a coffee shop in Burbank to discuss the process of obtaining documents for a man who had been detained by ICE, the complaint stated.

During a phone conversation, Nardos allegedly told a federal informant that it would cost $25,000 to get the letter of refusal for the man.

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