The mystery of Frances Akhavi, who burst onto Orange County’s conservative Republican scene a little more than a decade ago and just as rapidly disappeared a few years back, isn’t really about her con-artist tendencies. As local FBI agents can attest, our region has long been a hotbed for brazen crooks who’ve mastered the art of swindling wealthy people out of their money. But, just going by the numbers, Akhavi’s heist of around $1.2 million doesn’t qualify her as particularly skillful in comparison with others of her ilk.
What sets this otherwise-common, 58-year-old thief apart is the puzzling identity of her chief defender, Lynn Schott, the mayor pro tem of Irvine. On the city’s official website, Schott boasts of her “fundamental” commitment “to serving honorably with uncommon transparency and integrity.” Yet, the councilwoman—who knows an Arizona federal grand jury indicted Akhavi, a.k.a. Farzaneh Akhavi, on 87 counts for money laundering, identity theft, and wire fraud leading to a June 29 guilty plea agreement—nonetheless describes her Tea Party pal as “a national treasure.”
During a July 24 phone interview with the Weekly, a feisty Schott refused to back down, arguing Akhavi, who loves taking pictures with national politicians unaware of her criminal record, has been treated unfairly and predicting eventual exoneration.
“She has not yet had her day in court,” the councilwoman said in a misleading statement that raises a key question: What more is necessary to appreciate the swindler’s guilt after she acknowledged the fact to federal prosecutors Kevin M. Rapp and Mark S. Kokanovich in exchange for them dropping most of the indictment’s counts?
Schott declined to discuss the reason U.S. District Court Judge Diane Humetewa tore up the guilty plea, reinstated all charges and ordered a trial. The con artist had signed the plea in English but wrote a word in Farsi that, when translated, means something akin to “innocent.” Federal judges aren’t typically amused by such two-faced bravado. Akhavi’s original sweetheart deal would have capped her incarceration at no more than three years.
Now, if found guilty, she faces the potential of spending more than a decade in custody. Akhavi’s brilliant move also erased the government’s early agreement not to pursue her 36-year-old daughter, whom prosecutors allege benefitted from the swindling operation.
“The defendant provides inconsistent excuses for using her victims’ funds to purchase real estate in the name of an entity controlled by her daughter,” states a Department of Justice court brief that goes on to assert that a remorseless, chronically unemployed Akhavi “fraudulently extracted” money from unwitting acquaintances for years, then “subsisted on” fraud, robbing at least one family of its life savings.
Christina Shea, a fellow Republican who sits next to Schott on the City Council dais, remembers meeting Akhavi around 2010 at a party activists’ event. “She was engaging,” Shea recalls. “But she was a promoter, a political operative. She gave the impression that she owned a TV station in Los Angeles. I thought she was very wealthy.”
By 2014, Shea confirmed earlier suspicions, after Schott and Akhavi, whom she saw as “very close—like sisters, really strangely close,” plotted to wrestle control of the Orange County Republican Party from then-chairman Scott Baugh. She visited what she believes was a large, off-the-books campaign office on MacArthur Boulevard in Newport Beach, where the two women worked together on political aims that ultimately put Schott on the council.
“I said to myself, ‘What’s going on?’ Up until then, our Irvine party events were very small,” Shea says. “I don’t think [the Newport Beach operation] was ever reported [on campaign-disclosure reports].”
After Akhavi’s indictment, Shea contacted Schott to tell her she’d be wise to distance herself from her friend. The call didn’t go well, much like my recent one. “Lynn was very defensive,” Shea says. “She said it was all lies. No matter what I said about the 87 counts, she defended Akhavi and she said she would never speak to me again.”
The relationship is noticeably frigid during council meetings, where Schott, an ultra-conservative Republican, has been aligning herself with interests tied to Larry Agran, the longtime lefty Democratic Party boss who was booted from office in 2014 after squandering hundreds of millions in public funds intended to build the Orange County Great Park.
Asked during my call why she didn’t consider Akhavi’s confession meaningful, Schott said, “That’s not the person I know,” then hung up.
SHOE STORE OWNER’S LIES EARN PUNISHMENT
Dressed in a fine gray suit covering a husky 47-year-old frame that once earned a football scholarship to Cal State Fullerton before converting himself into a multimillionaire Orange County businessman, Sherif Hunein arrived on the top floor of the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse this week for sentencing stemming from his white-collar crimes.
To grab a $1.8 million Small Business Administration loan in November 2011 for the purchase of a retail shoe store called Shoes N’ Shoes, Hunein lied on a sworn application and submitted a doctored financial statement to a federally insured Newport Beach bank.
The cash infusion allowed the Egyptian immigrant—who arrived in Southern California as a non-English-speaking, 7-year-old in 1977—to live with his wife and three kids in a $1.6 million home inside a gated community about a minute’s drive to Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach.
But after two years, the business collapsed—he claims not from malfeasance, but because of competition—and he defaulted on $1.4 million, a mess that eventually caught the attention of federal law-enforcement officials.
Confronted in December 2016, Hunein quickly signed a guilty plea agreement. Assistant United States Attorney Jennifer L. Waier recommended a 27-month prison trip after giving a sentencing-guideline discount for the defendant’s confession. The U.S. Probation Office differed, suggesting incarceration for 15 months. However, the defendant, who’d fled his native country because of alleged Muslim Brotherhood threats against his family, sought a punishment no worse than home confinement for eight months.
“[My client] is very remorseful,” Hunein’s Los Angeles-based lawyer, Aaron May, told U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford. “He made a mistake that is not reflective of his character. . . . He’s a very religious man. . . . This is somebody who learned his lesson and knows what he did was wrong.”
Hunein, who has boasted on his résumé of his banking acumen and brought two Coptic Orthodox Christian priests to court as character witnesses, supplemented the stance. “I’m very sorry for what was done,” he read from a prepared statement. “I’m asking for leniency so I can be here for my wife, my family and my mother.”
Sensing she was losing the argument, Waier told Guilford she questioned the defendant’s sincerity. “He intentionally fleeced,” she said. “He willfully lied.”
The judge turned to the defendant, saying, “Your life story is positive. You came through difficult circumstances. That speaks well of you.”
Hunein smiled slightly and nodded his head, not knowing what was coming.
“Your actions here don’t speak well of you,” Guilford added. “You lied, and there were great losses. . . . I need to promote respect for the law. I need to let people know there will be consequences. . . . There must be a custodial sentence.”
With his wife weeping and his right hand covering his face, Hunein learned his punishment: A one-year loss of freedom. He must surrender to prison officials no later than Oct. 27.
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.