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Prosecutions

SoCal Foreign Agent Political Fundraiser Pleads Guilty to Multiple Charges

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LOS ANGELES – Federal prosecutors filed a criminal case this week, charging Imaad Shah Zuberi, a Southern California campaign fundraiser, with falsifying records to conceal his work as a foreign agent while lobbying high-level U.S. government officials.

The criminal charges allege that Zuberi engaged in lobbying efforts that earned him millions of dollars, much of which was pilfered from his clients.

According to The Daily Beast, Zuberi “donated $900,000 to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee.” Additionally, they report “his name also appears on a document tied to an inaugural event featuring foreign power brokers and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the Trump ally who ran the House intelligence committee.”

In addition to violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), Zuberi is charged in a criminal information with tax evasion and making almost $1 million in illegal campaign contributions that included funneling money from foreign entities and individuals to influence U.S. elections.

Politico Reports “While Zuberi has drawn attention for his substantial donation to Trump’s inaugural committee, he has a history of supporting candidates of both parties. Last campaign cycle, recipients have included Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, multiple California Democrats in House races and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul.”

Imaad Shah Zuberi

 Zuberi, a 49-year-old resident of Arcadia, California, has agreed to plead guilty to the three counts in the information.

A plea agreement also filed in United States District Court notes that Zuberi faces a statutory maximum sentence of 15 years in federal prison once he pleads guilty to the charges.

Zuberi, who operated a venture capital firm called Avenue Ventures, solicited foreign nationals and representatives of foreign governments with claims he could use his influence in Washington, D.C. to change United States foreign policy and create business opportunities for his clients and himself.

According to court documents, clients gave Zuberi money for consulting fees, to make investments, or to fund campaign contributions.

As part of his efforts to influence public policy, Zuberi hired lobbyists, retained public relations professionals and made campaign contributions – which gave him access to high-level U.S. officials, some of whom took action in support of his clients. As evidence of his access and influence, Zuberi distributed to his clients photographs of himself discussing policy with elected officials.

          While some U.S. officials were willing to take action on issues Zuberi put forward, most of Zuberi’s business efforts were unsuccessful and his clients suffered significant losses. Many of the lobbyists, public relations consultants, and other subcontractors also suffered losses when Zuberi refused to pay them, according to the information.

          Zuberi, on the other hand, became wealthy, primarily as the result of fraudulent representations about his background, influence, and the use of client funds, much of which constituted an “outright conversion of client money for defendant Zuberi’s own personal benefit,” the information states.

          The information details dozens of illegal campaign contributions – including those paid by Zuberi using the names of other people, “conduit contributions” made by others that Zuberi reimbursed, and contributions to U.S. political campaigns that were financed by foreign entities and individuals.

          The information further states that Zuberi accepted money from two foreign companies with promises that the funds would be used to contribute to political campaigns, but Zuberi took the majority of the money – more than $1.1 million – for his own personal use.

          “Mr. Zuberi’s multi-faceted scheme allowed him to line his pockets by concealing the fact that he was representing foreign clients, obtaining access for clients by making a long series of illegal contributions, and skimming money paid by his clients,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna.

“Mr. Zuberi circumvented laws designed to insulate U.S. policy and our election process from foreign intervention. This investigation has halted his illegal conduct, will result in several felony convictions, and could send him to prison for a lengthy period of time.”

          “American influence is not for sale,” said Paul Delacourt, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “Mr. Zuberi lured individuals who were seeking political influence in violation of U.S. law, and in the process, enriched himself by defrauding those with whom he interacted.”

          The information details other aspects of Zuberi’s scheme through which he personally profited. Zuberi mounted efforts to convince the government of Bahrain to lift sanctions on a citizen of Bahrain in connection with the development of a large resort in that country. The scheme falsely created the appearance that Avenue Ventures had made a major investment in the Bahrain project.

Zuberi lobbied members of Congress to apply political pressure on Bahrain to cease its interference in the project, claiming that it was adversely affecting him as a U.S. investor. In fact, Zuberi designed these efforts to assist the citizen of Bahrain. Zuberi illegally received compensation for these efforts because he failed to register as a foreign agent of the Bahraini citizen.

          Zuberi also converted to his own benefit money invested in U.S. Cares, a company established to export humanitarian items to Iran, according to the information. In 2013 and 2014, investors put approximately $7 million into U.S. Cares, but Zuberi used over 90 percent of the investor funds for his personal benefit – to purchase real estate, pay down mortgages, remodel properties, invest in brokerage accounts, donate $250,000 to a non-profit organization established by a former high-ranking elected official, and to pay down personal credit card debt, according to court documents.

          In 2014, Zuberi entered into a contract with the government of Sri Lanka to rehabilitate Sri Lanka’s image in the United States, which had suffered as a result of allegations of persecution of the country’s minority Tamil population.

Zuberi promised to make substantial expenditures on lobbying efforts, legal expenses and media buys, which prompted Sri Lanka to agree to pay Zuberi a total of $8.5 million over the course of six months in 2014.

According to court documents, days after Sri Lanka made an initial payment of $3.5 million, Zuberi transferred $1.6 million into his personal brokerage accounts and used another $1.5 million to purchase real estate.

          The information states that Sri Lanka wired a total of $6.5 million pursuant to the contract, and Zuberi directed more than $5.65 million of that money to the benefit of himself and his spouse.

Zuberi paid less than $850,000 to lobbyists, public relations firms and law firms, and certain subcontractors did not receive full payment after Zuberi falsely claimed that Sri Lanka had not provided sufficient funds to pay invoices, according to the information.

          “This case should deter individuals who seek to provide false statements to the Department and covertly influence our political process on behalf of foreign governments,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “Through misrepresentations in his FARA filing, Mr. Zuberi attempted to deceive our elected officials and the American public on behalf of Sri Lanka. The Department of Justice treats these crimes with the gravity that they deserve and will continue to aggressively identify, investigate and prosecute FARA violations.”

          “Mr. Zuberi was the primary organizer of paid political efforts to mold the opinion of political officials, including members of Congress, to benefit Sri Lanka. Instead, he used shell business entities to divert millions of dollars for his own personal use,” stated Special Agent in Charge Ryan L. Korner of IRS Criminal Investigation’s Los Angeles Field Office. “Today’s announcement of Mr. Zuberi’s anticipated guilty plea to tax and campaign finance violations demonstrates IRS-CI’s continued commitment to work alongside our federal law enforcement partners to ensure the system remains fair for everyone.”

          In relation to the FARA charge in the information, Zuberi agreed to plead guilty to submitting false registration statements in which he concealed his direction of the Sri Lanka lobbying effort, as well as the millions of dollars he received.

          In relation to the tax charge in the information, Zuberi agreed to plead guilty to one count of tax evasion for failing to report on his 2014 tax return millions of dollars in income he received from Sri Lanka. While the 2014 income tax return claimed income of $558,233, Zuberi failed to report more than $5.65 million he received in relation to the Sri Lanka lobbying effort.

Zuberi admits in his plea agreement that his tax evasion over the course of four years – 2012 through 2015 – caused tax losses of at least $3.5 million and as much as $9.5 million.

          In relation to the campaign finance charge, Zuberi agreed to plead guilty to a charge of violating the Federal Election Campaign Act in 2015 by making conduit contributions in the names of other people, reimbursing contributions made by others, and being reimbursed for contributions he made.

In his plea agreement, Zuberi admits that over a five-year period – 2012 through 2016 – he made or solicited more than $250,000 in illegal campaign contributions.

          This matter is being investigated by the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation. It is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys of the Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section. The National Security Division of the Department of Justice provided assistance to the prosecutors.

Zuberi is expected to make his initial appearance in this case in United States District Court in downtown Los Angeles on October 30.

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Prosecutions

D.A. Trying to Reduce Jail Population During Pandemic

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District Attorney Jackie Lacey

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced today that she has directed her deputy district attorneys to take steps to reduce the number of people both in local jails and courthouses as part of her office’s response to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“I have asked my attorneys to consider the health risks in every decision they make,” District Attorney Lacey said. “I have directed them to consider ways to keep nonviolent felony and misdemeanor offenders out of our jails and courthouses during this pandemic.”

District Attorney Lacey instructed her managers during a March 16 video chat to delay the filing of new cases and re-evaluate pretrial cases to allow nonviolent offenders who do not pose a danger to the community to remain outside the criminal justice system during this national emergency. She urged them to look at both the pending charges and the defendant’s criminal history to determine their risk to the community at this time.

In keeping with that directive, District Attorney Lacey is working with Sheriff Alex Villanueva, Public Defender Ricardo Garcia and Alternate Public Defender Erika Anzoategui to review approximately 2,000 cases involving in-custody defendants using the same standards to determine if they are a risk to public safety or can be safely returned to the community on their own recognizance while awaiting trial. If they cannot reach an agreement on a particular defendant, the court will review the case and make a determination.

Earlier, in a March 14 email to all employees, District Attorney Lacey directed her deputy district attorneys to consider whether a defendant is considered by health officials to be at a high risk of exposure to coronavirus as a factor in either setting bail or agreeing to a defendant’s release on his or her own recognizance.

To help further reduce the jail population, District Attorney Lacey has instructed her deputy district attorneys to not request that defendants be remanded on probation or parole violations on nonviolent and non-serious crimes unless the defendant has demonstrated that he or she is a danger to the community.

She has recommended that deputy district attorneys use the Proposition 115 guidelines that allow law enforcement officers to testify to witness statements at preliminary hearings in an effort to reduce the number of civilian witnesses having to appear in courthouses during the pandemic.

District Attorney Lacey also has directed Head Deputy District Attorneys to expand the use of the existing Pre-filing Diversion Program (PDP). This program diverts people from entering the criminal justice system on specified misdemeanors and felonies by opting for office hearings as opposed to criminal filings.

As for setting future court dates, deputy district attorneys were advised against objecting to continuances unless necessary to prevent a serious case from being dismissed.

Additionally, deputy district attorneys were informed that they should concur with requests for general time waivers and continuances of jury trials for an extended period of time for out-of-custody defendants.

As to community service, including work performed through the California Department of Transportation, deputy district attorneys were directed to temporarily suspend or extend pending due dates for completion and not use these options at this time unless completion dates may be extended beyond the usual due dates. In addition, they are being directed to agree to put progress reports over for several months.

District Attorney Lacey also has released new Fraud Alerts warning consumers about coronavirus-related scams and price gouging and posted a video message addressing the impact of the coronavirus on her office’s operations. They may be viewed at http://da.lacounty.gov.

In an effort to reduce the spread of this disease, District Attorney Lacey has implemented alternate work schedules for all of her 2,200 employees. This includes flexible work schedules and using technology so that attorneys and other staff members may work remotely.

Employees have been encouraged to prepare for trials, interview witnesses, conduct legal research and, in some cases, even file criminal cases remotely, when possible.

No District Attorney employee has been diagnosed with COVID-19. In an abundance of caution, all employees making reports of possible exposure to the coronavirus are assigned to telework until the guidelines provided by the county’s Public Health Department for a safe return to work are followed.

District Attorney Lacey continues to work closely with county and court officials to determine how best we can continue to maintain public safety during this public health crisis.

“We have a constitutional duty to serve the public by keeping the residents of Los Angeles County safe from violent crime, even during national emergencies,” District Attorney Lacey said. “I want to thank the people in my office for their dedication and cooperation during these unprecedented times.”

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Prosecutions

WeHo Man Admits to Modern Art Fraud Scheme Using Fake Works

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Handcuffs

LOS ANGELES — A West Hollywood man has agreed to plead guilty to federal criminal charges that he sold bogus art he claimed was created by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. He also admitted using fake paintings as collateral for loans on which he later defaulted, and using fraudulent pieces for fraudulent write-offs on his income tax returns.

Philip Righter, 43, was charged on March 10 in United States District Court with wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and tax fraud. In a plea agreement also filed today, Righter agreed to plead guilty to the three felony offenses.

In total, Righter’s scheme attempted to bilk victims out of well over $6 million, and he caused losses of at least $758,265. Additionally, his fraudulent tax returns cost the United States more than $100,000, according to the plea agreement.

From 2016 until June 2018, Righter executed a scheme to defraud people, businesses and the United States by using counterfeit and fraudulent art that he asserted was genuine. Righter supported these false claims with fraudulent provenance – or chronology-of-origin – documents that he had created.

Before August 2016, Righter generally conducted these fraudulent transactions in his own name. But after the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department interviewed him about bogus Keith Haring art he attempted to sell to a Miami art gallery, Righter began using the names of other people to execute his scheme, court documents state.

In order to make the fake artwork appear authentic, Righter ordered and used embossing stamps that appeared similar to the authentic stamps used by the estates of Basquiat and Haring authentic art by these artists. Righter admitted he used these stamps on provenance documents that he created and were later used to deceive his victims into believing the artwork was legitimate.

For example, Righter fraudulently used without authorization the name and signature of Gerard Basquiat – father and previous administrator of the artist’s estate – on fraudulent provenance documents, court documents state. Righter also falsely used the identifications of the estates of Basquiat and Haring, falsely used the names of these two artists, and falsely used the name of a legitimate gallery where Basquiat art was previously sold.

In furtherance of the scheme, Righter obtained and attempted to obtain numerous loans by using the fraudulent art and accompanying fraudulent provenance documents. For example, in October 2016, using another person’s name, Righter contacted a victim about a loan in which a purported original drawing by Basquiat would be used as collateral. Righter created a fraudulent certificate of authentication letter that purportedly came from Basquiat’s estate. The victim wired a $24,000 loan, on which Righter later defaulted. After Righter’s default, the victim attempted to auction the piece, but the auction house determined the piece was fraudulent, and the victim lost $24,000.

Righter also sold or attempted to sell numerous pieces of fake modern art. In August 2017, using another person’s name, Righter listed a purported 1983 piece of art by Basquiat with the word “Samo” written on it with an art sale website and he provided fake provenance documents. The website sold the piece for $50,000. In 2018, after the piece was determined to be fraudulent, the website had to refund the purchase price to the buyer.

Righter also admitted that he knowingly and willfully included a false W-2 and a false donation of fraudulent art to a charity on his 2015 federal income tax return, which resulted in him fraudulently receiving a refund of $54,858. Righter then signed and filed a false 2015 amended tax return, which claimed a false casualty and theft loss of $2,575,000 related to artwork he claimed had been stolen. In truth, the artwork was fraudulent and had no value. This bogus amended tax return resulted in false carryback loss refunds for 2012, 2013 and 2014 totaling $52,485, according to court documents.

Once he enters guilty pleas to the three charges, Righter will face a statutory maximum sentence of 25 years in federal prison.

Righter also currently faces charges in the Southern District of Florida for an approximately $1 million attempted art fraud on the Miami gallery. A hearing in that case is scheduled for March 11.

The FBI’s Art Crime Team, the Los Angeles Police Department, and IRS Criminal Investigation investigated this matter.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Mark A. Williams and Erik M. Silber of the Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section.

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Assault & Battery

Female Motorist Charged With Assaulting People at Taco Truck

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LOS ANGELES — A 25-year-old woman accused of assaulting people at a taco truck with her vehicle last August has been charged, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has announced.

Amber Rose Darbinyan of Los Angeles faces three felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon, a car, one felony count each of hit-and-run driving resulting in injury to another person and vandalism over $400 damage, as well as three misdemeanor counts of battery.

Darbinyan pleaded not guilty today. The defendant is scheduled to return to court on March 27 for a preliminary hearing setting in Department 37 of the Foltz Criminal Justice Center.

On Aug. 25, 2019, Darbinyan and other patrons were parked in front of a taco truck in Hollywood when she allegedly rammed her vehicle against a car that was blocking her path, prosecutors said.

If convicted as charged, the defendant faces a possible maximum sentence of eight years and four months in state prison.

The case remains under investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department, Hollywood Station.

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