The State Bar of California’s Board of Trustees Chair Ruben Duran announced that the State Bar is investigating attorneys Mark John Geragos and Brian Stephen Kabateck in connection with the Armenian Genocide insurance settlement funds from which dispersals were made in the U.S. and France.
Courthouse News added facts to this investigation. Geragos is best known as a criminal defense lawyer, having represented such celebrity clients as Michael Jackson, Winona Ryder, Chris Brown and Jussie Smollet. Kabateck is a plaintiff’s attorney, having represented a number of surviving families of victims in the Lion Air Flight 610 crash of 2018, and Los Angeles ratepayers in the Department of Water and Power billing scandal. He is also a former president of the LA County Bar Association. Both lawyers are Armenian Americans.
Kabateck, Geragos and a third Armenian American lawyer, Vartkes Yeghiayan, filed two class actions against insurance companies on behalf of families of victims of the Armenian genocide over unpaid life insurance claims. The suits were both for a combined $37.5 million. But as the Los Angeles Times laid out in a lengthy investigation published this past March, numerous victims’ descendants, as well as churches, never got the money they were owed.
Before he died in 2017, Yeghiayan claimed Geragos and Kabateck “had splurged on first-class travel and treated the descendants’ money as ‘petty cash,'” according to the Times.
Geragos and Kabeteck, meanwhile, have blamed others for the misappropriated funds, including Yeghiayan, whom they sued in 2011. In a letter to the Times after the investigation was published, Kabateck wrote, “I have always been deeply saddened that Mr. Yeghiayan and his co-conspirators took money from the decedents of victims of the Armenian genocide, and that is why I worked so hard to reveal their actions and help hold them accountable.”
The State Bar announcement was made pursuant to California Business and Professions Code section 6086.1(b)(2), which authorizes the State Bar’s Board Chair, when warranted for protection of the public and after notice to the licensee, to issue an announcement confirming the fact of an investigation, clarifying the procedural aspects and current status of the investigation, and defending the right of the licensee to a fair hearing. Details of the investigation must remain confidential to comply with statutory limitations on disclosure.
A State Bar investigation seeks to determine whether there is a basis for filing a Notice of Disciplinary Charges. An attorney who is the subject of an investigation has a right to a fair hearing and must be presumed innocent of any misconduct warranting discipline until any charges that might be brought have been proven in a proceeding before the State Bar Court.
“The State Bar is charged with protecting the public,” said Ruben Duran, Board Chair. “Confidence in our ability to do so has unfortunately been shaken in recent times by the Girardi matter and what it represents. Restoring and maintaining the public’s trust in the disciplinary apparatus of this agency is imperative. To that end, it is important to emphasize that the State Bar investigates possible misconduct wherever it might occur. The status of attorneys, or the size of their practice, cannot and will not impact our decisions to investigate misconduct. I want to stress that in and of itself this announcement is not an indication of any misconduct by the attorneys being investigated. Lastly, the State Bar expresses gratitude to the LA Times for its excellent reporting on the distribution of Armenian Genocide settlement funds.”
The State Bar of California is still reeling from the Tom Girardi scandal, in which it was badly implicated. Girardi, another prominent plaintiff’s attorney – and famously married to “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Erika Jayne – has been accused of stealing tens of millions of dollars from his clients, including some families of the Lion Air crash. A Times investigation found that Girardi was, for decades, able to avoid discipline and hide his misdeeds, in part by befriending judges and key figures in the bar association.
In a phone interview, Geragos said he was infuriated by the announcement. “They’re waiving confidentiality on an investigation they haven’t done, in a matter that’s been investigated three times in the last 12 years by both inside and outside counsel,” he said.
In a written statement, Kabateck said: “The undisputed facts are and will always be that an independent third-party appointed, approved, and overseen by the Ccurt (like in any class action) distributed the settlement funds to the class members. Neither Mr. Kabateck nor Mr. Geragos were involved in any decision relating to individual payments to victims, nor were they able to decide, review or influence claims made by class members. We have fully cooperated with multiple prior investigations and inquiries conducted by the state bar and others (all of whom found no wrongdoing).”