Illustration by Bob AulThese are weighty days for Orange County apartment landlord George Argyros. Hoping his ambassador to Spain nomination sails to confirmation in the U.S. Senate, he is being investigated by the California attorney general for fraud and faces potentially ruinous civil lawsuits. You might think Argyros would be on his best behavior.
Documents obtained by the OC Weekly suggest that Argyros—who, local prosecutors say, systematically ripped off "thousands" of tenants over several years—continues to overcharge, shortchange and falsely bill tenants.
Consider the case of 28-year-old Thai Hoang, one of the numerous Vietnamese-Americans Argyros may have targeted. In late April, Hoang and his wife vacated their apartment in Calespana, a Westminster complex operated by Arygros' Arnel Management Co. Two weeks after leaving, they began receiving "suspicious" bills demanding fluctuating amounts, which at one point totaled more than $2,300.
"When we left, I was told by the manager that we would only lose my security deposit [$625]," said Hoang. "They are now charging me for everything they can think of."
Arnel has sent him six bills demanding six different amounts in a six-week period. Hoang responded with calls and letters explaining the company's errors. Each, he said, was met with indifference.
"I'm writing because I've been billed over and over for things I should not be billed for," he wrote on June 18. "It appears that whoever sends out the bills does it in a turnkey style because . . . I don't owe any utility bill and the apartment was not damaged. . . . I understand Arnel is in business to earn a profit, but I hope your intentions are honest."
Arnel also threatened Hoang with garnishment of his wages, litigation and destroyed credit. "It is our intention," an Arnel employee wrote on May 30, to collect the money "through every means available to us."
This continues a pattern revealed last year. In December, the DA's office met with Argyros' representatives and presented them with the results of their 13-month probe into Arnel's practices of illegally overcharging tenants for repairs, shortchanging them on deposit refunds and billing them for fictitious expenses. For example, during a six-month period in 1999, Arnel illegally charged 406 former tenants $193 each for painting when the actual cost was $67.
But if Hoang's case is typical, Argyros—a political ally of first-term DA Tony Rackauckas—has become more arrogant. His company is demanding Hoang pay $305 for painting—more than four times Arnel's cost. The company also charged Hoang $91 for "apartment cleaning 100 percent," $80 for carpet cleaning, $39 for window-blind "cleaning and repair," $160 for countertop repair, and $25 for a parking-lot remote key. Arnel topped off the bill with $60 in unitemized late fees.
Hoang provided the Weekly with evidence that damages he is being billed for were pre-existing. Hoang also has a receipt for turning in the $25 parking-lot remote key, a fact Arnel continues to ignore.
"It is frustrating," said Hoang, who was 18 months old when his family fled Vietnam in April 1975. "What they [Arnel] are doing to me is wrong."
Four months ago, the Weekly reported that many of Arnel's victims have been Vietnamese immigrants ("A Systematic Rip-off," Feb. 23). Law-enforcement sources recently confirmed that the company abused tenants regardless of age or ethnicity but allegedly targeted Vietnamese tenants most aggressively. Investigators believe Arnel—unaware of the likes of Hoang, an articulate, detail-oriented UC Irvine graduate and Newport Beach financial consultant—calculated that Vietnamese tenants would pay the bills without question.
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After derailing the case on Argyros' behalf, Rackauckas forwarded the matter to the state attorney general. That probe, as well as three civil lawsuits, are pending.
Argyros—who cannot speak Spanish and has no known diplomatic skills—was nominated ambassador to Spain in May. He did not respond to Weekly requests for an explanation of Hoang's case.
But at press time, Hoang says, an Arnel official called Hoang with a proposal: if he promised not to sue his former landlord for fraud, the company would forgive Hoang's "debt"—not just 5 percent or 10 percent or even 50 percent, but all of it. From $2,400 and a threat of ruined credit to zero. Hoang said he will decline the offer. He said, "They were trying to steal from me."
If you believe you have been a victim of Arnel Management Co.'s leasing tactics, e-mail email@example.com. Or call (714) 825-8433.