SANTA ANA (AP)—A former Armenian consul in Los Angeles pleaded not guilty Monday to a charge of obstructing immigration proceedings in an alleged document scam aimed at helping immigrants avoid deportation.
Norair Ghalumian entered the plea in federal court in Santa Ana, prosecutor Sandy Leal said.
The Armenian Consulate General in Los Angeles issued an announcement immediately following the arrests last month saying that the Consulate and its staff were not involved in this matter and that the Consulate was cooperating fully with authorities on this matter.
She said four other defendants facing similar charges in a total of four cases also pleaded not guilty.
Immigration officials accuse Ghalumian and the others, including a former consular employee and an immigration attorney, of selling letters to immigrants facing deportation to help block their return to Armenia. The letters stated that Armenia would not issue a travel document for the immigrants, essentially preventing the U.S. government from sending them to Armenia.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said many of the immigrants who obtained the letters — which sold for as much as $35,000 — had been convicted of crimes that ranged from domestic violence to murder.
Ghalumian, who was consul in Los Angeles from 1999 to 2003, was arrested last month and released on bail. A message seeking comment was left Monday for Ghalumian’s attorney Anthony Brooklier.
The other defendants are Hakop Hovanesyan, a former consular employee from Glendale; Margarita Mkrtchyan, an immigration attorney from Glendale; Oganes Nardos of Valencia; and Elvis Madatyan of Glendale.
Messages were left Monday for each of their attorneys.
Mark Werksman, Hovanesyan’s attorney, said his client is a good, decent man. He declined to comment on the specific allegations.
Each defendant is scheduled for a status conference in late September and a trial on Oct.