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Attorneys at war over genocide

Four are involved in court case alleging improper use of funds for Armenian victims.

May 13, 2011|By Bill Kisliuk, bill.kisliuk@latimes.com

Attorneys who have won tens of millions of dollars for descendants of Armenian Genocide victims are accusing one another in court of misusing funds or stalling payments to thousands of their clients.

Mark Geragos and Brian Kabateck, two of the lead attorneys in class-action cases Armenian Americans have filed in federal court against insurers, accuse Glendale-based co-counsel Vartkes Yeghiayan and his wife, attorney Rita Mahdessian, of setting up sham charities and misusing nearly $1 million over the last six years.

Yeghiayan, in turn, is accusing Geragos and Kabateck of misusing proceeds from the litigation and of allowing compensation requests from more than 1,000 Armenians to go unanswered.

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The imbroglio comes several years after New York Life Insurance Co. and French insurer Axa S.A. agreed to pay $37.5 million to settle claims that they failed to compensate descendants of genocide victims who bought policies between 1875 and 1923.

Other insurers and banks still face accusations that they profited unfairly from the estates of people who were killed or forced to flee during a pogrom by Ottoman Turks, including the violence from 1915 to 1923 that resulted in the death of 1.5 million Armenians.

The $20-million New York Life settlement from 2004 called for most of the money to go to families that could prove their losses, with $3 million to go to charities addressing the needs of the Armenian community. The 2005 Axa settlement for $17.5 million contained a similar provision, with $3 million to go to French charities.

In March, Geragos and Kabateck sued Yeghiayan, accusing him of creating two charities — the Center for Armenian Remembrance and the Paris-based Conservatoire de la Memoire Armenienne — and then failing to disclose his and Mahdessian’s roles in the organizations, to which a federal judge allocated nearly $1 million, according to the lawsuit.

Geragos and Kabateck allege an investigator they hired discovered the Paris office of the Conservatoire de la Memoire Armenienne doesn’t exist.

In U.S. District Court filings, they also allege that the Center for Armenian Remembrance, based in Yeghiayan’s Brand Boulevard law office, “appears to serve no legitimate purpose [and] has not engaged in any charitable purposes on behalf of the Armenian community.”

Yeghiayan and Mahdessian did not respond to requests for comment.

But Yeghiayan’s attorney, Roman Silberfeld, refuted the accusations.

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