In an unusual move stemming from an unprecedented libel ruling, a California businessman announced Tuesday that he had mobilized an army of attorneys nationwide to seize Soviet assets in the United States unless Moscow pays him the $413,000 he was awarded by a Los Angeles federal judge last month.
"Yes, definitely," snapped Raphael Gregorian, 57, of Palo Alto when asked at a news conference in front of the U.S. Courthouse whether he expected to see a dollar, or even a ruble, of the judgment.
In June, U.S. District Judge David Kenyon ruled that the Soviet government newspaper Izvestia had falsely accused Gregorian of being an American spy. The judge awarded Gregorian $250,000 for injury to his reputation and $163,165.17 for medical equipment the Soviets failed to pay for after his firm delivered it to Moscow.
Almost as soon as Kenyon's decision was announced, Gregorian's lawyer, Gerald L. Kroll, began recruiting a lawyer in every state to enforce the ruling. Kroll told Tuesday's news conference that if the Soviets do not pay up in a few weeks, the lawyers will start obtaining liens on Soviet property.
On Tuesday, Kroll said, lawyers in the other 49 states were registering Kenyon's opinion in their respective federal courthouses in preparation for obtaining the liens.
Although vague about exactly what property would be attached, Kroll suggested bank accounts, machinery, office equipment and even Aeroflot, the Soviet national airline, would be vulnerable.
Chances Called 'Slim'
But a Harvard Law School international law specialist said that under current federal law, Gregorian's chances of succeeding with his lien ploy are "slim."
"That's quite an achievement" in receiving the libel award in the first place, said Prof. Detlev Vagts, a former U.S. State Department lawyer, in a telephone interview. But he added that under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act of 1976, Gregorian is severely limited in his options.
Under the law, Vagts said, the Soviet Union would have to, in effect, give Gregorian permission to seize its U.S. assets. Short of that, he said, the only property Gregorian could attach, according to the law, would be the assets of Izvestia in the United States, such as office equipment and machinery.
Had Been Welcome Figure
Gregorian had been a welcome figure in Moscow business circles until two years ago, when Izvestia published an article saying that he was a front for U.S intelligence agencies. After the article appeared, Gregorian claims, his firm, California International Trade Corp., which sold $10 million a year in medical equipment to the Soviet Union, was virtually destroyed.