By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
UPDATE: Just days after claiming that Los Angeles businessman Sam Solakyan was a “target” in an ongoing identity-theft investigation -- and being rebuked by U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Nakazato for what the judge called “unsubstantiated” assertions -- Assistant United States Attorney Todd T. Tristan withdrew the allegations. Tristan admitted to the court that the government had no reason to suggest that Solakyan was a target in the case, during which Solakyan had attempted to post bail for family friend Suren Gambaryan, who was one of seven men indicted by a federal grand jury. Nakazato later accused Tristan of making “reckless, disparaging insinuations and innuendos” against Solakyan, and Tristan was removed from the case by his superiors.
Internal Revenue Service special agents tracking organized crime operations in Southern California might disagree, but Los Angeles' Sam Solakyan is the kind of millionaire friend anyone would want—at least based on his public persona. Solakyan enjoys a reputation for showering gifts, especially on law enforcement officials. The 31-year-old Armenian who immigrated to the United States at the age of 6 and grew up in North Hollywood has given generous sums of money to the Burbank Police Department, city of Glendale, ex-Drug Enforcement Administration agents and California Highway Patrol-related officials.
So it is not necessarily surprising that Solakyan would try to come to the rescue of Suren Gambaryan, a longtime North Hollywood friend who found himself in serious trouble earlier this year. But Gambaryan (aka "Sonny") is no cop. According to the IRS Criminal Division, he's a dangerous member of Armenian Power, a Southern California crime family with outposts in Anaheim.
In February, IRS agents arrested Gambaryan after a federal grand jury issued a 132-count, identity-theft indictment against him and six other men: Ashot Karapetian of North Hollywood, Artak Berberyan of Van Nuys, Vigen Tsaturyan of Sun Valley, Akop Kantrdzyan of Sylmar, Armen Berberyan of Van Nuys, Armen Zargaryan of Granada Hills and David Samsonyan of Winnetka.
According to the 50-page indictment, the conspirators—all of whom have pleaded not guilty—stole identities in Los Angeles and Orange counties as part of a con game to rob the U.S. Treasury. Agents claim that during a two-year period beginning in 2010 the defendants filed 2,977 fraudulent Form 1040 tax returns (many using names of elderly citizens who no longer work) seeking $19.3 million in imaginary refunds. If the allegations are true, the scam worked well. Court records show that the IRS paid 62 percent of the fake claims for a total loss to taxpayers of more than $9,952,000.
While there's nothing special about identity theft-ring prosecutions nowadays, this case—though still in its infancy—has taken several fascinating turns. As a result, the region's law enforcement community is at bitter odds, a federal judge is seething and Solakyan has found his well-crafted saintly image at least temporarily soiled. According to a post-indictment affidavit filed by Assistant United States Attorney Todd T. Tristan, the cop-hugging businessman is "a target" in the ongoing, organized crime investigation.
Tristan's accusation against Solakyan is startling because the businessman has a stockpile of appreciative letters from police agencies. And last year, Solakyan hired former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, a man with tremendous criminal law knowledge but no known corporate law experience, to serve as chief legal counsel to Global Holdings, Inc., where Solakyan is the sole shareholder. According to the California Secretary of State's office, that company is one of at least 10 corporate entities controlled by Solakyan, including Paramount Management Services and Vital Imaging, which has won government contracts at the Los Angeles County Jail and the United States Navy Research Center.
In a 2012 Global Holdings brochure, Solakyan published a picture of himself shaking hands with Cooley and added a quote. "When he announced his retirement, I was persistent in convincing him to not fully retire just yet," he said. "I know that I can learn a lot from him so when he agreed to come aboard I was extremely happy."
Solakyan learned that he was a suspect after he tried to post more than $1.96 million in bail for Gambaryan. The government claims to have multiple telephone recordings of Gambaryan ordering fake California driver's licenses in the scam to dupe the IRS. For example, in "call #49" the defendant allegedly discusses creating fake IDs with Santa Ana and Anaheim addresses. In another call, he outlines ways to avoid law enforcement detection, according to court records.
During the execution of a search warrant, agents claim they recovered fake driver's licenses that matched the names on the IRS refund checks. As agents approached one location for a raid, they saw a small computer thumb drive tossed from the residence. It purportedly contained a spreadsheet of 109 fake names and fake refund requests totaling more than $81,000.
According to Tristan's court declarations, Solakyan is suspicious for multiple reasons, including taking "measures to conceal his true residence," his official documents contain misspellings even of his own name (a move the prosecutor says indicates deception), he owes several hundred thousand dollars in income tax for his $3.5 million Global Holdings' pay in 2011 and he falsely represented himself "to be in law enforcement" when questioned by an IRS agent. Adding to Tristan's mistrust is that the businessman purchased a badge and a gun-carrying permit in 2011 from a discredited (and now disbanded), two-person police agency 107 miles away in a one gas station town, Maricopa, CA. The federal prosecutor also alleges in his filings that Solakyan has been involved in the medical transport business, "a known source of the identities in this scheme," and that the businessman has "a close relationship" with Gambaryan.
Kenny Reed—Gambaryan's well-respected, Santa Ana-based defense lawyer—was shocked that Tristan seemed, in his view, to "dishonestly" smear Solakyan, "a pillar of the community," for trying to help his client obtain pre-trial bail. Reed claims that Solakyan is so respected in law enforcement in recent years "he met with department heads of the CIA, FBI, DEA and he toured the White House as a guest given a private tour." Reed also suggests that Cooley's association with Solakyan is unquestionable proof of his character.
But Sam Dordulian, a former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney and Solakyan's personal lawyer, is most incredulous. "I am dismayed at the level of unprofessionalism, utter disregard for the truth, logic and even reasoning," Dordulian wrote in an April 1 affidavit. "It seems the quest to 'win' at all cost is on full display by [Tristan] . . . To label my client a 'target' now simply because he had the audacity to offer his properties as a surety for an old family friend is an inappropriate use of authority."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Nakazato declared on March 27 that Tristan's filings to block Gambaryan's bail are so far mostly based on "unsubstantiated" assertions and are "a disgrace " because the prosecutor's briefs contain "numerous typographical, formatting, grammatical and spelling errors."
The 16-year judge, normally a favorite of prosecutors, hasn't hidden his contempt for Tristan's "disorganization." Yet Nakazato, whose parents suffered internment during World War II, is no sucker. He too has his suspicions about Solakyan, writing in an order of his "amazement" that someone so young could have obtained his "apparent wealth."
During a heated April 9 hearing inside Santa Ana's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse, Tristan renewed his contentions that Solakyan's wealth is derived from "illegitimate" funds. Reed exploded at the sloppiness of the government's case–even declaring he will "rip open the chest" of the IRS agent on the case, Michael J. Walfield, when he lands on the witness stand. Nevertheless, Nakazato refused to grant Gambaryan's $3.55 million bail after noting the strength of Tristan's overall case. He ordered an April 22 hearing to resolve the issue of Solakyan's credibility, and he issued a warning to the prosecutor.
"You've painted Mr. Solakyan as part of the [criminal] operation as a straw man or a money launderer," the judge told Tristan. "If so, charge him accordingly. But if he turns out to be a solid citizen, then there will be hell to pay."
(This exclusive article first appeared online at 3 p.m. on April 10, 2013.)