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Marciano Brothers' Time of Trial : Fashion: The four men who built Guess are a story of immigrant success. But their image has taken a severe beating amid a nasty war in the rag trade.

January 21, 1990|JIM SCHACHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The pleasure is stolen. The feeling of accomplishment is spoiled," conceded Paul Marciano, at 37 the youngest and most combative brother and the creator of Guess' trend-setting advertisements. "I really have the feeling of a waste of five years."

North African Roots

They were born in North Africa--Armand, the eldest, in Morocco, the others in post-war Algeria. As French colonialism ebbed, their father, a third-generation rabbi, was recalled to France and assigned to the synagogue in Marseille, a big, rough, gaudy port city on the Mediterranean.

It was \o7 la vie active\f7 , the hectic life of the businessman, that attracted the brothers, especially Georges. In his 20s, he was on his own, making neckties and peddling them to a few shops. Early on, Maurice quit medical school to work with Georges. And when a men's peasant shirt that Georges designed proved popular, Armand, an assistant bookkeeper, and Paul, a store clerk, left their jobs to help, too.

They manufactured ties and shirts, started a retail outlet and shared an apartment behind it. In Bandol, 50 miles eastward up the Cote d'Azur, they opened their first women's shop, named MGA, in an old fish store that never quite lost its stink.

By the late '70s, they were manufacturing casual wear, including blue jeans, and operating a string of 20 little shops along the Cote d'Azur. But a trip to Los Angeles in 1977 gave the Marcianos new ideas. Intending to visit for a week, Maurice, Georges and Paul stayed for two months, opening an MGA in Century City before returning to France with plans to move permanently to Southern California.

Their affairs in France did not tie up smoothly, though. Exhibiting a stubbornness their parents describe as a family characteristic, the brothers refused to pay a corporate tax bill that mounted by 1981 to 60 million francs, or about $11 million. (The Marcianos paid $2.25 million to settle the debt in 1986, according to Paul.)

Paul insists that the tax dispute was the only blemish on the family's record in France. But American officials--their interest fanned by the Nakash forces--have suspected otherwise.

As part of investigations by the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, European-based INS agents compiled a "rap sheet" of purported offenses by the Marcianos. According to a copy of the document made public in the trial last year, the agents had information that Armand, Georges and Paul, between 1973 and 1982, engaged in stealing, fraud and counterfeiting and used explosives. Maurice's record was clear.

One of the listed offenses was Georges' supposed arrest in July, 1982, for attempting to blow up a family home near Marseilles. Acting on that information, the INS accused him in August, 1988, of having lied years earlier when he said, in an application for permanent resident status, that he had never been arrested. If the agents were right, Georges could have faced deportation.

The news arrived as family members gathered for the \o7 brit milah\f7 , the ritual circumcision, of Georges' newborn son Scott. Then, as now, the Marcianos vehemently insisted that none of them ever had been arrested for or convicted of any crime. Letters from high-ranking French law enforcement officials backed up their claim.

Indeed, after a month of furious lobbying, the INS dropped its attempt to revoke Georges' legal status. Fifteen months later, according to a Justice Department spokesman, the INS is reviewing its handling of the incident.

The Marcianos say they know what happened. They have filed a federal racketeering lawsuit charging that Pena, until recently the Nakashes' investigator, planted false information about them with American officials in Europe, then schemed to have Georges deported so he would be unavailable to testify in the 1989 Marciano-Nakash trial in Los Angeles. Pena denies it.

To prove their charges, the Marcianos hired private eyes last summer to retrace the steps of Pena and his associates. Connecticut investigator John Quirk initially reported from Europe that there were signs that Pena had misled American agents, according to copies of his reports obtained by The Times.

But Quirk also began collecting information that the Marcianos were, in fact, well known to French law enforcement.

In a report last August, Quirk's boss, Virginia investigator William Mulligan, confirmed that none of the Marcianos had ever been convicted of a crime. But he added that French records stated they had "trafficke(d) in jewelry and garments," "broken customs laws" and "avoided taxes," according to a report made public in the racketeering case.

Many of the allegations were civil in nature, Mulligan wrote. "The Marcianos are not considered dangerous criminals or men of the Mafia stripe," he said. "They are viewed as commercial criminals." Pena, he added, was "a catalyst" for Georges' problems with the INS.

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