Advertisement
 
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Alleged Fraud Rocks Iranian Community : Emigres: Investors say they lost millions to a businessman they trusted as a friend and, in some cases, a relative.

March 04, 1993|JEFF KRAMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WESTWOOD — Millions of dollars have vanished in a series of alleged real estate swindles pitting Iranian-Americans in the Los Angeles area against one of their own: Emanuel Sabet. Sabet's cousin, Houshang Farahmandian, says he was bilked out of more than $1.5 million. Dozens of other investors say they were defrauded out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by a man they trusted as a friend, adviser and, in many cases, a relative. Authorities, meanwhile, have linked Sabet to a scheme to foreclose on the homes of South Los Angeles residents who failed to make payments on television satellite dishes. And the Los Angeles County district attorney's office alleges that he forged someone's name to steal a $50,000 check. Dogged by myriad creditors, Sabet filed for personal and corporate bankruptcy last year, claiming $3.59 million in liabilities. A computer search of court records found Sabet or his companies listed as a defendant in 29 Los Angeles County Superior Court cases. Yet for all his apparent troubles, Sabet seems to be surviving. While his former clients dream of one day recovering even a small portion of their losses, he has managed to continue living in an $800,000 house in Westwood that one family member claims was never his to begin with. And he continues to do business through a firm that has been involved in much of the alleged wrongdoing, Rapid Mortgage Co., now operating at 1762 Westwood Blvd. Sabet says he is an honest businessman whose luck soured in a slumping real estate market. "I've lost every penny I've had in my life," he said in a recent interview, during which he displayed a frayed shirt cuff to illustrate his plight. To listen to angry investors, however, Sabet is a sweet-talking criminal who preyed on his own people by manipulating a system of land transactions regulated by little more than the integrity of the participants themselves. Various government agencies, they add, have failed to grasp the full extent of Sabet's activities. In halting English, these emigres say they suspect that Sabet is manipulating U.S. bankruptcy laws as well, pleading poverty as he and his wife, Gila, tuck a fortune in ill-gotten gains into foreign accounts. "This is amazing what Sabet has done--and he's getting away with it," said one investor, Kamran Chehrazi of Los Angeles, who says he lost $350,000 in a deal that involved Sabet. The investors, however, have not come up with any proof that Sabet has transferred assets abroad. And the court-appointed trustee supervising Sabet's personal bankruptcy case, David Haberbush, said his brief investigation of Sabet's activities has turned up no "specific concrete proof" to substantiate allegations of fraud or hidden assets. Sabet dismisses all the complaints against him and his companies, calling his accusers' charges absolutely false and describing himself as a fellow victim of bad times. He denied that his clients' money had been mismanaged in any fashion and specifically rejected the notion that any money had been stashed in foreign accounts. "I've put these people in front of myself," he said. "I know some of these people are hurt. I know some of them lost money. So did I." Sabet, 44, said he continues to operate his business so that he can provide for his family and because he cannot "just quit and commit suicide." He insisted that the Westwood home has always belonged to him and he lamented that it will soon be lost through foreclosure. The forgery and theft charge is pending in Beverly Hills Municipal Court, where Sabet was arraigned last month and released on his own recognizance. He is accused of stealing from Farahmandian a check intended for a third party, then forging the payee's signature and depositing the check into Rapid Mortgage Co.'s account. Sabet vehemently denies the charge, saying the alleged forgery was actually a minor bookkeeping correction that was agreed to by Farahmandian, then later seized upon by his embittered cousin as a way to gain an advantage in the civil litigation. Sabet accused his cousin of spreading lies and rumors about his business practices within a small community of relative newcomers from Iran. "There's one person behind this thing, and it's Mr. Farahmandian," Sabet said. Sabet is no newcomer to the United States. He and relatives say he studied in the United States during the '60s, returned to his native Iran, then left for good in the wave of emigration that followed the 1979 revolution that toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi. Along with thousands of other Iranians, he settled in Southern California. After a stint as a co-owner of a wine and cheese shop in Tarzana, he began working as a real estate investor and loan broker, concentrating on a tight-knit, mostly Jewish community of Iranian emigres living on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley. He was aided, various court documents allege, by a handful of associates, including Truman Shenassa, who is believed to be living in Moscow, and Shawn Mesbahi of Inglewood. Contacted last week, Mesbahi, a builder, insisted that he was never "directly involved in (property) negotiations," but he defended Sabet and discounted talk of fraud. "Most of the (investors), they were getting a high return," he said. "They were taking risks and they understood that." Court papers, however, allege that Sabet, Shenassa and Mesbahi sometimes transferred properties back and forth among themselves and their shell corporations, which included Shenassa's American Dream Homes, Sabet's Rapid Mortgage Co. and now-defunct Edmani Financial Co. As the properties changed hands, the investors claim, their values were artificially increased, allowing Sabet and his alleged co-conspirators to borrow heavily against them. Inevitably, the over-encumbered properties would go into foreclosure, leaving investors holding the bag, the plaintiffs contend. Sabet flatly denied the allegation, but as an example of his dealings, Santa Monica attorney Mark Ozello, who is representing seven clients who claim to have been swindled by Sabet, points to a five-acre parcel of property in Lancaster. Documents from a private assessor provided by Ozello show that after a series of transactions in late 1988, the parcel's owner, American Dream Homes, claimed that the property was worth $1.4 million, in part because of a $500,000 loan to American Dream Homes by Sabet. That loan, according to the documents, appears to have been nothing more than "a paper transaction used to entice (an investor) into believing his loan was secure"--a point argued by Sabet, who says he truly lost $500,000 in the deal. In any event, the property was subsequently reassessed by the Los Angeles County assessor's office at only $253,000. "Every one of these people has a story in which deeds on properties didn't match their value," Ozello says of his clients. The pattern of allegations against Sabet, the lawyers for the plaintiffs agree, bears the signature of affinity fraud, believed to be on the rise in recent years among Southern California's many groups of recent immigrants. In affinity fraud, scam artists prey on people within their ethnic group, taking advantage of their victims' willingness to trust one of their own to help them negotiate unfamiliar financial and cultural terrain. Sabet, these lawyers say, found his compatriots easy pickings. They note that business dealings in Iran, particularly when they involve friends and family members, are conducted without the swirl of paperwork and lawyering that mark even the simplest transactions here. Deals are sealed with no more than a handshake--or when the parties pluck hairs from their mustaches and place them on the table as a gesture of goodwill. Najila K. Brent, attorney for Farahmandian, and Ozello say Sabet abused that trust through a variety of schemes that sometimes involved forgeries and falsely notarized documents. Sometimes investors were given property deeds only to learn later that they had never been recorded. Sometimes double escrow accounts were used to hide a property's true value. Sometimes, the attorneys alleged, investors received a decent return on a small initial investment, prompting them to invest much larger sums that were never seen again. Some of the alleged victims are as follows: * Miriam Darougar of Encino, cousin of Sabet. She says she, her sister and her two brothers lost a total of $450,000 to Sabet. Much of it appears to have been lost when Sabet offered them a high interest rate on money he never returned. The three have taken no legal action against him because, Darougar said, they cannot afford to. "This was our life's savings," she said. Darougar also accused Sabet of threatening to never repay any investor who reported him to the authorities. She said he made a similar threat to her sister recently after he learned of The Times' inquiries. Sabet flatly denied the charges of intimidation. * Kamran Chehrazi says he lost $350,000 he thought was being used to close a real estate deal in Quartz Hill, near Palmdale. In reality, the money wound up in the hands of an Irvine title company, which used it to relieve IRS tax liens against American Dream Homes and T. S. Investors, a development company run by Shenassa and Mesbahi. "We found out (Sabet) was mixed up with them (too)" Chehrazi said. "They were acting in unison." Sabet contends that Chehrazi's deal had nothing to do with him, although he suggested that Chehrazi--rather than losing money--merely failed to make as much as he had hoped. Chehrazi, in turn, accused Sabet of giving an intentionally muddled version of events by lumping the transaction with another deal involving the property. * Six clients represented by Ozello, all Iranian-American Jews, claim to have lost roughly $600,000 through a variety of illegal transactions. A seventh, Ebrahim Ezzati, contends that he lost a $350,000-plus piece of property through foreclosure because Mesbahi borrowed against it without his knowledge. Sabet denied any connection with that deal. Ozello acknowledged that Sabet's name may not appear on any of the documents involving that particular transaction, but he insisted that such a distinction is meaningless given his extensive ties to Mesbahi and Shenassa, whose names are on the deal. The stakes are even higher for Sabet's cousin, Farahmandian. He claims that he lost $1.5 million of his own money and $800,000 more he was given to invest by family members in Iran. Farahmandian says his troubles began after he bought property in Lakewood in 1988. He built a small shopping center, Lakewood Plaza, on the site, then approached Sabet to broker a $1.1-million loan. "He was my cousin--I trusted him" said Farahmandian, 54, once a moderately wealthy developer but now broke and living in a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica. During the ensuing two years, as Sabet was ostensibly negotiating the loan, he visited Farahmandian every few weeks with new documents to sign, supposedly to satisfy the paperwork requirements of potential lenders. "He said sign, sign, sign and I signed," Farahmandian said. "Now I understand." Farahmandian says one of the forms he signed unwittingly gave Sabet power of attorney over his assets. In July, 1991, using that power of attorney, Sabet, according to documents filed in Santa Monica Superior Court, allegedly transferred three Santa Monica properties and the house in Westwood from Farahmandian to Sabet's sister, Soroya Amid, and his friend, Bijan Navidbakhsh. Farahmandian alleges that Sabet then borrowed $1 million against the properties, which were subsequently foreclosed against. Sabet's response is that Farahmandian knowingly gave him power of attorney. He also contends that Farahmandian was merely the trustee of the Westwood home, not the owner, --and that Farahmandian had only a 17% interest in the Santa Monica properties. Farahmandian counters that his share of ownership in the Santa Monica properties was 85%. And he said he was indeed the owner of the Westwood house, having bought it for $680,000 in April, 1991, three months before Sabet transferred its ownership. Sabet's complex trail of deals and transactions extends beyond the Iranian-American community. Before it went out of business, Sabet's Edmani Financial bought the outstanding loans of another company, Cable Busters Inc., which sold satellite dishes to residents in South Los Angeles and other sections of the city who were unable to receive cable television during the late 1980s. Lured by a promise of one year of free viewing, residents bought the dishes by the hundreds--often, according to county investigators, without realizing that they were simultaneously taking out a second mortgage to pay for them. In effect, those who failed to make their monthly payments ran the risk of losing their homes. A spate of customer complaints to the county Department of Consumer Affairs prompted the district attorney's office to file a consumer fraud case two years ago against Cable Busters and Edmani. Eventually, an assistant district attorney said, the county won a small settlement for a handful of customers. The matter continues to be pursued at the civil level by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which is representing 3,000 former Cable Busters clients. Paul Lee, director of litigation for the foundation, said Edmani representatives used heavy-handed tactics to collect the payments and foreclosed on at least eight homes. In disputing Lee's accusations, Sabet contended that he too was a victim of the satellite dish scam. He said Edmani Financial bought the right to collect outstanding Cable Busters debts without realizing that many of the original contracts between Cable Busters and their customers had been fraudulently obtained. "Of course I was a victim," he said. "I've lost more than $3 million in that company because of those lawsuits." Lee, however, maintains that Sabet knew of the fraud and sometimes took steps to cover it up. In many cases, Lee said, Sabet would offer loans to residents to help them pay off various debts. In that way, the original, tainted contracts written by Cable Busters were erased from the picture. Sabet replied that arranging such loans was the nature of his business. Despite the mountain of litigation against Sabet, the full range of his alleged activities appears to have escaped oversight by any one governmental agency. County prosecutors involved in the Cable Busters case and on the check forgery charge all said they were unaware of Sabet's troubles in the local Iranian-American community. Meanwhile, Farahmandian and other investors who see themselves as crime victims wonder aloud why Rapid Mortgage still holds a valid state real estate license and why, despite their pleadings, the state Department of Corporations, which regulates lenders, has taken no action against the firm. They say they have appealed to those agencies and others, including the IRS, the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department--with no success. "They don't do anything," Farahmandian said. Experts familiar with real estate fraud note that overextended law enforcement agencies are slow to recognize and respond to it, often mistakenly writing off such crimes as civil disputes. "It's just incredible the amount of money that is stolen in white-collar crime, and unfortunately some of it falls through the system," said Bill Moran, deputy commissioner with the state Department of Real Estate. Lee blamed much of the problem on the ease with which land can be transferred and borrowed against without the actual owner realizing what's going on. "Is there a government agency who watches or cares about what is transferred or recorded?" he asked. "Absolutely not." Meanwhile, speculation runs rampant among the investors that, as the government does nothing, Sabet is hiding their money in foreign accounts, perhaps in Canada, Israel or Russia. "In this country you can be jailed for stealing a bottle of beer, but you can't go to jail for stealing millions of dollars," Miriam Darougar said. "What can we do?"

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|