Not far from this very keyboard, in Watertown Square in Massachusetts, stands the Armenian Museum of America. Founded in 1971, in the midst of one of the largest Armenian communities in the country, the museum took the following as its mission:
The Armenian Museum of America is the largest Armenian Museum in the Diaspora. It has grown into a major repository for all forms of Armenian material culture that illustrates the creative endeavors of the Armenian people over the centuries. Today, the Museum’s collections hold more than 25,000 artifacts including 5,000 ancient and medieval Armenian coins, 1,000 stamps and maps, 3,000 textiles, and 180 Armenian inscribed rugs. In addition to more than 30,000 books in the Research Library, there is an extensive collection of Urartian and religious artifacts, ceramics, medieval illuminations, and various other objects. The collection includes historically significant objects, including five of the Armenian Bibles printed in Amsterdam in 1666.
But the Armenian Museum is more than just a storehouse of artifacts. It’s a living museum and library which offers exhibits and diverse cultural and literary programs to its members and the community at large.
In the museum, in addition to these artifacts, is a permanent exhibit on the Armenian Genocide, the systematic forced dislocation and murder of up to 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923, a policy so infamous that Adolf Hitler used it as a justification for his own crimes against humanity. The difference, which Hitler himself cited, was that, due to Turkish resistance, acknowledgment of the genocide’s reality was delayed for decades by Western nations that should’ve known better. For example, the United States recognized the Armenian Genocide three years ago this April.
Anyway, during the 2000s, a series of lawsuits, based in Los Angeles, seemed to achieve a kind of circumscribed justice for the descendants of the murdered Armenians. From the Los Angeles Times:
Then, in the mid-2000s, court cases in Los Angeles, home to one of the largest Armenian communities outside Armenia, delivered a measure of justice that history had long denied. Three Armenian American attorneys sued to collect life insurance policies on victims of the genocide, and came away with a pair of class-action settlements totaling 37.5 million. Finally, in an American courtroom, the genocide was treated as fact.
Of course, that being a whole lot of money, and this being the United States of America, the vultures were reportedly waiting.
In the decade that followed, however, the much hoped-for reparations devolved into a corrupted process marked by diverted funds and misconduct that even the lawyers involved characterized as fraud, The Times found in an investigation that drew on newly unsealed case filings, other court documents, official records, and interviews. More than 1.1 million in a settlement with a French insurer was directed at various points to sham claimants and bank accounts controlled by a Beverly Hills attorney with no official role in that case, according to court filings and financial records. A French foundation that was supposed to distribute millions in settlement funds to charity was never set up, and some $ 1 million of that money ended up at Loyola Law School, the alma mater of two attorneys in the case, according to an accounting provided by the school.
Armenians who stepped forward to collect on ancestors’ policies in the settlement with the French insurer had their claims rejected at an astonishing rate of 92%, court records show. Applicants were denied despite offering convincing evidence such as century-old insurance records, birth certificates, ship manifests, hand-drawn family trees and copies of heirloom Bibles. “It was for us blood money – blood of the people killed in the genocide,” said Samuel Shnorhokian, a retired French businessman who served on a court-approved settlement board and has tried for years to persuade the FBI and other agencies to investigate. “We never thought there would be misappropriation of funds.”
The history behind the lawsuits is a fascinating one. A California lawyer read in the memoir of a former US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire that, acting with complete impunity, the Turkish government demanded the payouts of American life-insurance policies held by the Armenians that the Turkish government had killed. For a while, the lawsuit strategy sailed along smoothly. Then everything went sideways.
It was in the second case that red flags emerged. That settlement, with Paris-based insurer AXA, designated up to $ 11.35 million for descendants. Decisions about whether applications were legitimate or not were to be made by a board of three prominent French Armenians, according to the settlement terms and court filings. Months before the French board’s appointment, the attorneys – Kabateck, Yeghiayan and Geragos – established important parts of the approval process in Los Angeles, according to court records and lawyers’ emails later turned over to authorities.
They installed as settlement administrator – the coordinator of the claims process – a courtroom interpreter from Glendale who had helped run the New York Life settlement. They instructed him to hire staff and set up operations in downtown LA, in the same Wilshire Boulevard office used for the New York Life case. The arrangement put the process of deciding who got money 6,000 miles from Paris, making it difficult for the French board to provide any meaningful oversight.
This unwieldy arrangement resulted in new — and, in the minds of many of the plaintiffs, unreasonably restrictive — criteria by which to judge the claims made for the money.
The new criterion appears to have had a profound effect: Accountings in court records show that less than 8% of AXA claims applications were approved for payment. One result of the low approval rate was that millions of dollars in the settlement accounts could be used, per the wording of the settlement, for charitable purposes.
Those rejected on the city-of-residence basis included people who had provided what appeared to be overwhelming evidence that they were rightful heirs, according to archived files reviewed by The Times in recent months. Some who were denied had sent copies of their ancestors’ insurance policies – among the strongest possible proof that they had valid claims. The archived files suggest evaluators dismissed applications without reviewing the evidence, writing: “cities don’t match.”
The alleged actions of the administrators and the lawyers add one more violation to those already visited upon the families of the victims.
Another denied applicant wrote that he had sent 23 records to prove he was a descendant and had been counting on the money for heart surgery. “My paternal grandparents were beheaded at my father’s presence,” he wrote. “Honestly I’m so disappointed.”
Where the money reportedly went turned out to be another scandalous aspect of the whole affair.
Of the hundreds of Armenians approved for compensation from the AXA fund, a Syrian named Zaven Haleblian stood apart. He was awarded $ 574,425, more than any other individual, according to a settlement database later provided to authorities, court records and filings with the State Bar of California.
Yet as the French board soon learned, Haleblian had never heard of the AXA settlement, let alone applied for it.
With the files and bank records, the French board and Yeghiayan started working together to unravel where the money went in the AXA settlement. The Glendale lawyer tracked down Haleblian in Aleppo and arranged for him to be questioned under oath in the US During a deposition, he expressed shock that checks had been issued in his name. He said he had never heard of the supposed ancestors – members of the Funduklian family – listed for him in the settlement database.
The story has an even more sprawling cast of characters, many of whom seem to have been drawn to a pot of money the way sharks are drawn to blood. The allegation is that a historic crime against humanity resulted in a historic crime against the descendants of the victims.
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