The Pasadena Armenian Genocide Memorial Committee (PAGMC) led by interim chairman Bernard Melekian, former Chief of Police of Pasadena, recently published two press releases: “Statement on Internal Affairs” (October 23, 2014) and “Judge Rejoins Board of Pasadena Armenian Genocide Memorial Project” (November 4, 2014). They were in response to former chairman of PAGMC William Paparian’s press release and my reports on the irregularities at the PAGMC’s board. While its most recent press release is just an announcement about Retired Federal Court Judge Dickran Tevrizian rejoining the board, the earlier one, “Statement on Internal Affairs,” is the board’s official response to the accusations made in Paparian and my press releases.
The board’s “Statement on Internal Affairs” is far from reflecting what Melekian had described to me in an email as a ‘thorough internal review.’ As such, it is more of a primitive display of defense mechanism in the face of factual accusations, rather than a judicious point-by-point response to each of them. The first sentence of the statement is quite eloquent in that respect:
The PAGMC is pleased to announce that the law firm of Geragos and Geragos has agreed to serve as legal counsel to the committee as we navigate our way to the construction and completion phase of the Memorial Project.
The rest of the statement is an act of sweeping the issues raised in both Paparian and my press releases under the rug. It reads like a clever legal practitioner’s attempt to cloud the issues and distract the focus from the real problems. The closest the board members have come to refuting Paparian’s allegations in their statement is contained in the following profound postulate: “While the Board cannot control what the prior chairman says, his saying them does not make them true.”
With regard to the PAGMC’s financial problems indicated in Paparian’s press release and discussed in greater detail in “Crisis at Pasadena Armenian Genocide Memorial Committee Continues,” the board members have contented themselves with writing a couple of sentences that contain neither facts nor figures. They claim the Community Foundation of the Verdugos (CFV) and the CPA have assured them that ‘there are no financial irregularities with respect to funds that have been collected.’ If, in fact, the board’s claims are true, then it needs to be borne in mind that neither the Community Foundation of the Verdugos nor the CPA are independent disinterested parties. These assertions may have assured a handful of board members but definitely not the rest of the Armenian community that has been presented with no compelling documentation that backs their statements.
Particularly, the CPA’s assurances should be taken with a grain of salt, as they are not entirely devoid of favoritism. John Sadd, the CPA, was retained by the PAGMC on the recommendation of none other than the central figure in the financial scandal of the PAGMC, its Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer, David George Gevorkyan. The latter is a good friend of John Sadd’s son, Louie Sadd. As the chair of the Audit Committee of the City of Glendale, Louie Sadd was instrumental in Gevorkyan’s appointment to the Audit Committee of the City of Glendale.
As a matter of fact, Scott Ochoa, City Manager of Glendale, announced, on November 4, 2014, that David Gevorkyan had resigned from his position in the city’s Audit Committee for ‘personal reasons’ in late September. This was said in response to my inquiry about David Gevorkyan’s current affiliation with the City of Glendale, in light of reports about inaccuracies in his application for said position. A mere coincidence or not, Gevorkyan’s resignation occurred following a background investigation conducted by the City of Glendale, which revealed material misrepresentations in documents he had signed and submitted to the municipality in question.
The PAGMC’s board concludes its “Statement on Internal Affairs” with exactly what it started with – wielding the Law Offices of Geragos & Geragos, as if it were a sabre of some sort. Instead of doing its job of spreading fear, however, the current board’s defense mechanism has only manifested its members’ insecurity:
We welcome the Law Offices of Geragos of Geragos & Geragos with open arms to the committee and are confident with the assistance of this nationally renowned law firm we can continue to promote issues near and dear to the Armenian community.
The extra ‘Geragos’ may be a typo, but it is, certainly, a vivid example of Freudian slip. The board may add as many ‘Geragoses’ as they want, but the quantity, in this instance, is highly unlikely to translate to quality.
In fact, bringing Mark Geragos, a high profile criminal defense attorney, to the PAGMC as legal counsel wasn’t a very wise choice by Melekian and the board he chairs. Ironically, Geragos is in the middle of a developing scandal regarding unfair distribution of funds among insured Genocide victims’ heirs. In a statement issued on May 26, 2014, the AXA Settlement Fund Board, established in France, in August 2007, to oversee the distribution of funds among the beneficiaries in question, accused Mark Geragos and his colleagues of a number of irregularities, based on abundant evidence. Below are two fragments from their detailed statement:
Further to the insistence of the Board, Attorney Geragos sent to France a big account book, concerning the AXA case. The examination of this only file revealed several irregularities with regard to clauses mentioned in the agreement of November 2005 (“Settlement Agreement”).
Although it does not come within its remit, the Board observes that the allocation of 3 million US DOLLARS to the non-profit organizations, as well as the balance amount after the payment of the compensations to individuals, was not following the clauses of the agreement dated November 2005, signed with AXA; this one stipulated that the aforementioned associations had to be the ones of the Armenian Community of France. Now, not only the Lawyers did not fully distribute the sum of 3 million US DOLLARS added to the balance amount, but they allocated an important part of this compensation to other countries than France.
How can a person who has been implicated in mishandling the Genocide victims’ funds be on a board that is meant to honor the same victims’ memory?
In another example of poor judgment, Bernard Melekian has tried to solve the board’s problems with lights and glitter instead of facts and figures. The board announced on November 4, 2014 that Retired Federal Court Judge Dikran Tevrizian rejoined the board. The calculated effect is obvious. The addition of a renowned judge and a high-profile criminal defense attorney is expected to add legitimacy and convince the average member of the Armenian community that everything is fine with the board. “Otherwise a reputable federal judge would never get involved with it,” Boghos or Bedros will think.
What they probably don’t know is that, unlike Mark Geragos, Judge Tevrizian is not only aware of the irregularities that have marred the board’s past, but has made a personal contribution to them.
As mentioned in “Crisis at Pasadena Armenian Genocide Memorial Committee Continues,” Judge Tevrizian was the Master of Ceremonies for the Armenian Genocide Memorial Ground Blessing event that took place on April 27, 2014. The solemn ritual was tarnished by a violation of the IRS terms for 501(c)(3) organizations, when Judge Tevrizian introduced James Hellmold, Assistant Sheriff of Los Angeles County, as a candidate for the Los Angeles County Sheriff. Moreover, he invited Hellmold to the stage to give a speech. Judge Tevrizian thus violated the IRS requirement to provide ‘an equal opportunity to participate to all political candidates seeking the same office.’ Bob Olmstead, another candidate for the same position, Los Angeles County Sheriff, was also present at the ground blessing event. But neither Judge Tevrizian, nor any of the members of the PAGMC’s board led by Paparian tried to remedy this clear-cut violation by providing Olmstead an equal opportunity.
Melekian’s bad choice of new members to the board is reminiscent of an earlier display of poor judgment, when he decided to cooperate with a Turkish organization, which, as it was later revealed, was lobbying against the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
In 2008, Bernard Melekian and his wife became the first and so far the only Armenians to have benefited from all-expenses-paid trips offered by the Pacifica Institute. It is a non-profit organization established by a group of Turkish-Americans in California, in 2003. At that time, the retired Chief of Police of Pasadena was the incoming Director of the Community Oriented Policing Services Office in the Department of Justice. After the trip, Melekian was invited to the 6th annual Dialog and Friendship Dinner, organized in Los Angeles, CA, on November 12, 2009, by the Pacifica Institute, where he reportedly said that he was ‘very touched by visiting his grandfather’s birthplace in Turkey and the Institute is going at the right direction.’
What is the ‘direction’ that Melekian readily deemed ‘right’? In “Armenians Should Counteract Countless Congressional Trips to Turkey,” Harut Sassounian, publisher of the California Courier, writes that the Pacifica Institute is among ‘Turkish-American organizations who have spent millions of dollars to take members of Congress and their staffs on all-expenses-paid trips to Turkey with the intent of buying their allegiance.’ Sassounian was referring to investigative journalist Shane Goldmacher’s findings published in The National Journal. According to LegiStorm.com, a website that closely monitors congressional travel and finances, 615 congressional visits were made to Turkey since 2000 at a cost of $3.5 million, as of January 14, 2014.
The Pacifica Institute has readily acknowledged being affiliated with the Gülen Movement. Dubbed as a ‘secretive movement,’ the Gülen Movement is allegedly behind the 2013 corruption scandal in Turkey, which targeted the ruling Justice and Development Party, resulting in the arrest of hundreds of civil servants. After Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed revenge on Fethullah Gülen, the latter fled to the U.S. and now lives in a self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
Despite the hostility between Gülen and Erdoğan, however, there is at least one thing where their agendas seamlessly match, and that is the Armenian Genocide denial campaign.
Faruk Taban, the president of the Turkic American Alliance, the umbrella group that encompasses a number of U.S.-based Gülenist organizations, was quoted by BuzzFeed as saying that the Gülen movement’s involvement in U.S. politics began in 2007, ‘when Turkish immigrants lobbied to squash an Armenian genocide recognition bill.’ According to him, the major Gülen organizations ‘play a role in helping people from local communities get involved in DC.’
It is unclear how much of this was known to the incoming Director of the Community Oriented Policing Services Office in the Department of Justice, when he accepted the offer of an all-expenses-paid trip to Turkey. Though the lobbying scandal hit the news a few years later, there must have been clues for a seasoned high-ranking policeman that Bernard Melekian is.
The PAGMC’s recent statements have made it apparent that the current board is unwilling to address the issues mentioned in Paparian and my press releases. The battle of press releases is becoming a waste of precious time. Since Geragos is notorious for manipulating the law to circumvent justice, future attempts to amend the wrongdoings of the board may well be futile.
There is a simple solution to ensure that the Pasadena Armenian Genocide Memorial doesn’t get marred by the cancer of corruption and cover-up that has spread in the PAGMC’s current board. The memorial should be built by a new committee. And actions should be taken as soon as possible to achieve that goal.
In a conversation with Edna Karinski, CEO of the CFV, I discovered that many of the CFV’s clients are not organizations, but rather groups of people who raise funds for specific projects intended to benefit the community. Instead of going through the trouble of setting up a non-profit organization, these groups use the non-profit status of the CFV to collect tax-deductible contributions and spend them in accordance with guidelines that regulate the relationship between them and the CFV. As strange as it may sound, most of the PAGMC’s issues could have been avoided had it never had a non-profit status at all. Below is a list of steps to create a new committee:
- All donors will be contacted and offered the choice to participate in the formation of a new committee that will manage the construction of the memorial and future fundraising;
- All the members of the new committee must have no formal ties to any political parties and candidates and must not be representatives of any religious organization. This will help prevent the new committee from making the same mistakes as the current board;
- The new committee enters into an agreement with the CFV to pool donations for the construction of the Pasadena Armenian Genocide Memorial;
- All donors will be encouraged to request a refund for their donations made to the PAGMC/CFV and contribute them to the new committee’s account managed by the CFV;
- The new committee petitions the City of Pasadena to transfer control over the memorial site to it and reissue all the permits related to the construction.
- The new committee enters into an agreement with the existing contractor and starts the construction of the memorial.
- If the construction professionals determine that the memorial won’t be completed by April 24, 2015, then, upon the engineers’ recommendations, some elements can be temporarily scaled-back to ensure timely completion of the project and finalized later;
- As the construction progresses, the new committee will continue fundraising and applying for grants.
An Armenian Genocide memorial stands not only for honoring the memory of the victims, but also for upholding truth and justice. Building a memorial on the foundation of lies and cover-up dishonors our ancestors and makes our demands for justice from the Turkish government hypocritical. As the grandson of Shahan Natalie, who was responsible for the act of retribution against Talaat, Enver, and Djemal Pashas, the chief perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide, I feel morally obliged to do what my grandfather would have done in this situation.
Ara K. Manoogian is a human rights activist; a Fellow of the Washington-based Policy Forum Armenia (PFA); creator of www.thetruthmustbetold.com; author of the white paper “To Donate Or Not to Donate”, an in-depth study on the activities of the “Hayastan” All-Armenian Fund