A former Glendale minister accused of illegally charging six immigrants for residency cards he was unable to produce has been put on probation and ordered to return thousands of dollars to the victims.
Elie Khoury, 50, pleaded no contest last Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court to two counts of grand theft. As part of an agreement, a judge dropped two other charges of grand theft and one count of attempted grand theft and sentenced him to three years probation.
The judge also ordered Khoury to pay $7,500 in restitution to the six immigrants on whose behalf the five criminal charges were filed.
"It is good news. Criminals like him, they should pay for what they've done," said Faye Garoian, a Lebanese immigrant who with her husband, Kevork, paid Khoury $2,100 to obtain a green card. "A priest is supposed to be an honest person. What is religion coming to?"
Prosecutors said Khoury, director of the Kingdom and World Mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ, posed for three years as an immigration consultant who, for fees as high as $1,500, falsely promised clients green cards. He then refused to refund the money to dissatisfied clients, claiming the fees were donations to his church--at the time a storefront operation and his home at 1250 S. Glendale Ave.
The self-styled minister was arrested Dec. 2, 1988, after threatening to have clients deported or physically harmed if they reported him to authorities, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard de la Sota.
The criminal charges followed a civil suit filed in late 1988 by the state attorney general's office, which accused Khoury of bilking as many as 200 families out of an average $1,000 apiece.
The suit, still pending, alleges that Khoury told his clients he had been authorized by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to collect money for his services. He had in fact been denied authorization several times, said Deputy Atty. Gen. Jerry Smilowitz.
Smilowitz said the civil suit asks for a permanent injunction barring Khoury from providing immigration consulting services for fees, and as much as $200,000 in restitution and civil penalties.
Khoury's no-contest plea to the criminal charges, although treated like a guilty plea for sentencing purposes, cannot be used as an admission of guilt in the civil proceedings. A Superior Court hearing on the civil suit is set for Jan. 17. Khoury is expected to represent himself.
On June 5, Khoury's probation officer will determine whether he has made a good-faith effort to pay the $7,500 in restitution ordered by the court. If he hasn't, he could spend a year in jail, said Larry Rivetz, a Los Angeles County public defender who represented Khoury last week in court.
Khoury spent almost two months in jail before he was freed on bail in 1989. Since then, he has moved his church and family to Hollywood. In a telephone interview, Khoury said that he still holds small services for his family and friends, but that his facilities and resources are limited.
"We have nothing. We are suffering. We are struggling," he said, adding that his family is now on welfare.
Khoury said he will graduate in March from a nearby business college--where he is studying law enforcement--and look for a job. During the interview, he maintained his innocence but pledged to pay the restitution by working or obtaining a loan. Khoury maintains that his clients donated the money to the church. He also said that despite the contrary claims of the INS, he expects the agency to notify him soon that he has been authorized to perform immigration services.
"Considering the length of probation, I think he'll be able to make restitution," Rivetz said.
But prosecutors and some of those who were bilked said they expect a long wait for the return of the money. State investigators never discovered where the fees collected by Khoury went.
"God only knows," Smilowitz said. "Certainly no pun intended by that. But we've never been able to locate any active bank accounts or appreciable assets."