Celebrity Reserve Deputy Held in Money Laundering;Crime: Sheriff's program to give guns and badges to influential individuals is on hold after second incident.; Home Edition Los Angeles Times TINA DAUNT and BETH SHUSTER; 11-20-1999
Celebrity Reserve Deputy Held in Money Laundering Crime: Sheriff's program to give guns and badges to influential individuals is on hold after second incident.
By TINA DAUNT and BETH SHUSTER, TIMES STAFF WRITERS
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 20, 1999
Part A, Page 1
Following the arrest of a second member of Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's special celebrity reserve unit, department officials said Friday that they were suspending the controversial program pending a review of its status.
The announcement came after another wealthy Baca supporter, Elie Abdalnour, who was sworn in last June and given a badge and a gun by the department, was arrested Thursday on federal money laundering charges following a six-month joint operation of the U.S. Customs Service, the
Internal Revenue Service and the Anaheim Police Department. Abdalnour's alleged accomplice and another man were also charged with attempting to smuggle weapons into Ireland.
Two months ago, sheriff's officials suspended celebrity Reserve Deputy Scott Zacky--whose family owns Zacky Farms chicken--after he was accused of brandishing a weapon at two people outside his Bel-Air home.
"Two incidents in this short of time says we need to suspend the program and take a look at what's going on to make sure we don't have another problem," said Undersheriff Paul Myron. He added that deputies this weekend will be collecting the guns and badges issued to members of the special unit.
In announcing the suspension of the program, Baca said in a prepared statement that he remains "committed to the basic premise and origins" of the initiative.
"I am confident that the diversity of Los Angeles County requires a strong partnership with responsible community leaders of all races, religions and ethnic groups," he said. "However, I must ensure that all participants are of the highest integrity and do not undermine the department's mission in serving the public."
Baca set up the program in June for celebrities, executives, athletes and other notable community members to serve as his "kitchen cabinet." As it turned out, no "name" celebrities wanted to join. The unit includes 20 or so little-known but influential individuals with an interest in law enforcement.
Abdalnour's arrest capped an investigation that began a month before the Cypress jewelry business owner was sworn in by the department, raising new questions about whether the celebrity reserve unit's members were given adequate background checks.
In fact, deputies conducting the background checks expressed concerns
about Abdalnour, but department brass pressured them to process his application regardless of their doubts, a source said Friday. "There were some concerns from the beginning," the source said.
Myron, however, he had heard nothing but good things about Abdalnour."I have had several people in my office who know him," Myron said. "They say he is an upstanding citizen."
Abdalnour--who was set to be freed on $500,000 bail Friday evening--owns the Cypress Jewelry Mart on Cerritos Avenue and is listed in state records as the president and registered agent for the Euro-American Investment Group. He and an associate, Jirair Tatarian, were charged in federal court in Santa Ana on Friday.
According to the criminal complaint, Abdalnour and Tatarian, who owns the Flamingo Theater in Anaheim, allegedly laundered about $250,000 believing that it came from proceeds from counterfeit clothing.Undercover Anaheim police officers initiated the investigation, telling Abdalnour and Tatarian they had access to increasingly large amounts from the sale of counterfeit apparel.Abdalnour was introduced to the undercover investigators as the money launderer by Tatarian, according to the complaint.
"Abdalnour went into great detail to explain how he had numerous bank connections in Beirut, Lebanon, and that he could facilitate wiring large sums of money," the complaint said. Further, he said that he was "very well connected" to the Lebanese government and that he could produce any kind of paperwork that the investigators would need, including falsified receipts reflecting jewelry sales. During the investigation, officers on several occasions gave Tatarian sums of as much in $90,000 in cash and then a few days later, deposits were made to the undercover account from a Beirut bank through a New York bank.
The defendants allegedly took cuts of as much as 10% per transaction.The complaint, written by Customs Service Special Agent Harry J.
Pettibone, said financial records and other evidence collected from both the Flamingo Theater and Abdalnour's jewelry store showed that they had been conducting illegal financial transactions since January 1988.
Friends and family of Abdalnour attended his court hearing Friday to show their support.
"He has always conducted business with integrity," said Jason Abdalnour, his brother. "This has really come from nowhere."
"This is a shock to say the least," said Andrew Lachina, Abdalnour's business attorney. "It is completely out of character."
Tatarian is also being charged, along with an associate, with attempting to smuggle guns from Los Angeles to Ireland, according to a criminal complaint. That case began as a result of the money laundering investigation. Tatarian apparently introduced police to a former Los Angeles International Airport employee who had the ability to smuggle weapons, according to the complaint.
Throughout the investigation, Abdalnour never displayed a sheriff's badge or gun, nor did he discuss his position with the department, said John Hensley, special agent in charge of the Customs Service's Los Angeles field office.
The accused man's affiliation with the Sheriff's Department "was a surprise to us when we found out about it today," Hensley said, adding that authorities were tipped off about Abdalnour's reserve status Friday. "Anyone charged with a crime should not be carrying a badge."
Dennis Slocumb, president of the union that represents the department's sergeants and lieutenants, said the latest arrest is further proof that the department pushed through the celebrity reserves, who are essentially business owners and others, some with ties to the sheriff. The department was so eager to avoid a new state law tripling the amount of training for reserves that it rushed the so-called celebrity deputies through the normal screening process. The reserves were given less training, no polygraph tests and, in some cases, were assisted with paperwork by deputies who went to their homes to help.
"How many more arrests do we need until we realize this wasn't a good idea?" he said. "They hurried the background checks, they hurried the training and now they're paying the price."
Department officials, meanwhile, said they were trying to figure out what happened with Abdalnour.
Capt. Doyle Campbell, who oversees the reserve program, declined to comment Friday. But he has said previously that although the background investigations were expedited, they were not incomplete. After Zacky was relieved of duty in September, sheriff's officials learned for the first time that he had a previous weapons conviction.
The city attorney's office said Friday that it is nearing the end of an investigation of that case and will probably make a decision next week on whether charges will be filed against the 35-year-old member of the family known for its poultry firm business.
Times staff writer Daniel Yi contributed to this story.
Back to LA Sheriffs