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A City's Surprise Scandal

Jeffrey Hambarian is accused of swindling Orange, where he grew up, and where his family's trash-hauling firm had been respected.

June 26, 2005|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Folks who know the civic-minded Hambarian family wonder how one of the clan's sons seemingly wandered so far astray, landing in an Orange County courtroom, accused of swindling millions of dollars from his hometown.

Jeffrey Hambarian grew up in Orange, a small town with conservative values, his family steeped in an old-fashioned work ethic. His father, Sam, began collecting the city's garbage in the 1950s, tooling around in a road-weary pickup that spoke to his thriftiness.

Through the years, even as the family's trash business boomed with the city's growth, Sam Hambarian embraced a humble, philanthropic lifestyle. He gave as much hard labor as he did money to causes around town, stooping to clean up parks and feed the homeless.

Never mind that some trash companies elsewhere carried the reputation of being shady; Hambarian's family did right.

But as young Jeffrey Hambarian grew up and took over the lucrative recycling arm of the family business, eyes began to widen.

He bought a $3-million hillside home overlooking the community. He drove flashy cars. He wore sleek suits, in contrast to his dad's uniforms of jeans and flannel shirts.

Jeffrey Hambarian's life was grand -- and so unlike that of his unassuming parents.

In 1995, an auditor for the Hambarians began telling city officials that something smelled in his employer's revenue reporting. Seventeen months later, the city announced a fraud investigation involving its long-time trash hauler.

Soon, the stench of corruption took over the city known for its old-fashioned soda fountain and antique stores in the tree-lined traffic circle downtown.

Old loyalties were questioned as city officials publicly cast doubt on each other's judgment. Finger-pointing escalated, the police chief was fired and conflict-of-interest charges plagued the city manager. A group of residents, their confidence in City Hall collapsed, launched an effort to recall the mayor.

Through it all, Jeffrey Hambarian, 50, has maintained his innocence. He hired defense attorney Mark Geragos, who stalled the start of trial until he finished representing convicted wife-killer Scott Peterson.

And now, eight years after the criminal investigation began, Jeffrey Hambarian is standing trial on charges of fraud, for allegedly bilking Orange out of $4.3 million. If convicted, he could face more than 10 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines.

The Orange County district attorney's office alleges that Hambarian blackmailed his vendors into padding and faking invoices, then forced them to funnel the profits back to him so he could launder the money at check-cashing businesses in south Los Angeles County.

As a growing city that continued to conduct business as a small town, current and former civic leaders said, Orange was ripe for fraud. For years, deals were sealed with handshakes. Officials allowed contractors to operate largely without outside auditing or supervision. Contracts were renewed without competitive bidding.

"There was this cozy, good-ol'-boy system that was so entrenched in city life," said Realtor Dan Slater, an Orange councilman when the scandal surfaced in 1997.

The Hambarians epitomized how local businesses were tied to City Hall.

For more than 50 years, the family was in the thick of the community. The sons' classmates became city officials and golf partners. Sam and Alyce Hambarian were among the first season-ticket holders when the California Angels came to neighboring Anaheim, and they were founding members of the county's performing arts center.

But as Jeffrey Hambarian's parents mixed with the community's elite, their son stayed under the radar.

Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Cafferty believes that Hambarian was quietly weaving a complicated web of fraud based on threats, promises and kickbacks.

In one alleged scheme, detailed during the ongoing trial, Hambarian instructed a tire seller to send him a phony invoice for truck parts. Hambarian would pay, and the city would reimburse his company. Under an agreement, the city paid a portion of Hambarian's costs. In the meantime, the seller would cash Hambarian's check, then kick back some or all of it.

The city continued to pay the recycler's bogus bills -- ranging from $40 for tires to more than $300,000 for truck upgrades -- unaware of anything amiss.

In retrospect, city officials say, they were too trusting of the recycler, in part because of the company's low trash-hauling rates. Besides, everyone in town knew the Hambarians.

But when company auditor Steven Nakada couldn't trace all of the money that the recycling company should have paid Orange, he suspected his boss might be pocketing the revenue. In October 1995, Nakada warned the city's public works director and his assistant of the alleged irregularities.

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