Edgar Sargsyan’s journey to bankruptcy court began with a one-way ticket from Armenia.
It descended into the underworld of Los Angeles, where he learned at the elbow of a crime figure how deals are made and dirty money can underwrite a glittering facade of legitimacy.
Sargsyan shook hands with governors and presidents at a Beverly Hills cigar club and conferred with gangsters in jail. He made a fortune through fraud and drug dealing while surrounding himself with an entourage of corrupt lawmen.
But by 2018, the fun was over, the money was drying up and Sargsyan found himself in bankruptcy court, where what remained of his companies’ assets — two jets, a penthouse in Beverly Hills and a stake in a Sharon Stone film, among others — were to be sold off.
The trustee overseeing the liquidation wasn’t sure how to address Sargsyan. “Just basically ‘mogul’? ‘Mr. Mogul’?”
“You can — yeah,” he replied. “I mean, I was almost there, but something happened on the way.”
‘A hard worker, a go-getter’
Sargsyan, 41, grew up the son of a judge in a town on the outskirts of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. He studied law at the country’s top university, then worked as an aide to a member of Armenia’s National Assembly.
Through his attorney, Sargsyan declined to be interviewed. To report this article, The Times drew on Sargsyan’s testimony at two trials and in bankruptcy court, interviews with people who knew him and law enforcement and court records.
In 2004, Sargsyan left home with an offer in hand to work at a law firm in New York City. When the job didn’t materialize, he moved to Glendale, home to a large Armenian diaspora. He was 23 and broke, he has testified at the trials of onetime associates.
Sargsyan has told a story about being homeless when he arrived in L.A., sleeping in his car behind a Del Taco, an associate who requested anonymity for fear of his safety told The Times.
It’s unknown whether Sargsyan really did start out in L.A. as a penniless outsider. He has demonstrated he has no problem lying, having pleaded guilty to doing so twice to authorities.
Unable to speak English, Sargsyan became a “capper” in the Armenian community, bringing clients to Glendale-area attorneys in exchange for finder’s fees, the associate said.
He got a job at Karns and Karabian, a Los Angeles firm well-known in the Armenian community, helping lawyers who were overseeing a settlement fund for relatives of people killed in the Armenian genocide.
In 2005, while working for another attorney in Glendale, Sargsyan met Hovhannes Nazaryan, a businessman who rented an office in the same building. Sargsyan testified in a federal criminal trial of an FBI agent that Nazaryan ran a ring of identity thieves that he soon joined.
Nazaryan, he said, bought students’ names and Social Security numbers from organizations that ran international exchange programs. The ring built up the students’ credit ratings, then racked up large charges and took out loans in their names, Sargsyan testified.
Nazaryan has pleaded not guilty to bank fraud charges and remains out on a bond awaiting a trial scheduled for May. He declined to comment.
Sargsyan turned an apartment into an identity theft mill, according to a person who witnessed the operation and requested anonymity to discuss criminal activity. Rooms were filled with dozens of baskets, each holding a person’s stolen information and a cell phone.
Questioning Sargsyan at the recent trial of an FBI agent he bribed, the agent’s attorney, Steven Gruel, stressed that the scheme’s victims were not just names and numbers on a piece of paper but “real people.”
“Sure,” Sargsyan replied. “Real people.”
“You would essentially take people’s credit and ruin it?”
“Yes, you could say that.”
Sargsyan said he and Nazaryan charged the cards at stores whose complicit owners gave them cash — minus a kickback of 20% to 30% — or luxury items like watches and jewelry.
But as Sargsyan spiraled further into a life of crime in the years to come, he refused to let go of his dream of becoming a lawyer in his adopted country.
While studying to pass the California bar, Sargsyan asked Tamar Poladian, a Glendale attorney, for an “apprenticeship,” Poladian recalled in an interview. She hired Sargsyan as a clerk, processing immigration paperwork.
“The clients liked him,” she said. “I got the sense he was a hard worker, a go-getter.”
A few years after he left Poladian’s firm, Sargsyan asked if he could list her as a reference, she recalled. He had failed the bar exam several times and was applying for a job with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, she said.
‘The la-la life’
In 2010, Sargsyan was celebrating becoming a U.S. citizen at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel’s BLVD restaurant when a friend introduced him to Levon Termendzhyan.
Termendzhyan had left Armenia as a teenager, settling in Los Angeles with his family in 1980. His first job was pumping gas at a station in La Crescenta. Over the next three decades, he amassed a network of gas stations, truck stops and fuel docks that made him millions.
But Termendzhyan was no mere businessman. In the Armenian community he has “the reputation of a mafia figure,” Sargsyan testified at the trial of another federal agent he bribed. The FBI, IRS, EPA, Department of Homeland Security and the Los Angeles and Glendale police departments had all opened cases on him, court and police records show. As one investigation after another sputtered out or ended in acquittals, Termendzhyan became known as more than just wealthy. He was untouchable.
Sargsyan recalled looking at the man, 15 years his senior, with both fear and admiration. “I just wanted to be as successful as he was,” he said.
To Termendzhyan, Sargsyan was a nobody. “His hands were everywhere, that’s all I knew,” he said in a deposition from a lawsuit he filed against Sargsyan. “Make a dollar here, a dollar there.”
Sargsyan, he said, would “wait three hours to say hello to me.”
A month after they met, Sargsyan ran into Termendzhyan at a restaurant in Glendale. They were still talking when it closed for the night, Sargsyan testified at the FBI agent’s trial, so they climbed drunkenly into the back seat of Termendzhyan’s limousine-style Mercedes Maybach and were chauffeured to Sargsyan’s apartment, where they continued on about “money, business, life.”
Termendzhyan admitted taking a liking to Sargsyan, “a good talker.”
“The kid wanted to have fun, you understand?” Termendzhyan said. “He wants to live in the la-la life.”
He came to consider Sargsyan something between a “counselor,” “right hand guy” and “younger brother,” he said.
At Termendzhyan’s side, Sargsyan learned how the fuel magnate made his money. He would tell the police years later it was an empire built on fraud, according to a detective’s affidavit.
By diluting the biodiesel he sold at his gas stations with elevated amounts of cheap biofuel, Termendzhyan was making an extra $4 million in profit a month, Sargsyan told a Los Angeles Police Department detective, who cited his statements in an affidavit seeking a search warrant.
Termendzhyanwas also pretending to supply gasoline to the Yakima Nation in Washington, which did not have to pay taxes on fuel, while selling it instead to gas stations around Los Angeles, Sargsyan told police. Termendzhyan is an honorary member of the Yakima Nation, the detective wrote.
After purchasing a gas station in Hollywood with Termendzhyan’s help, Sargsyan bought the off-the-books fuel at below-market prices, paying Termendzhyan in cash — $35,000 to $40,000 every Monday, the detective’s affidavit says.
Stashed inside the uncharacteristically modest headquarters of Termendzhyan’s empire — a double-wide trailer tucked behind a gas station in Commerce — was between $800,000 and $2 million in cash, Sargsyan told police.
“Greed kills a person…He could have a peaceful life. You have money, you’re smart. But he’s greedy.”
— Artur Makhshikyan, Sargsyan’s former driver
The cash was laundered through buying property, according to Sargsyan. He claimed Termendzhyan once showed up to purchase a gas station in Wilmington carrying two duffel bags. He dumped $600,000 on a table. The bills were “old and dirty,” Sargsyan told police, the rubber bands that bundled them together breaking. It took four hours to count the money.
Along with learning how he did business, Sargsyan came to understand how Termendzhyan cloaked himself in the perception of invulnerability.
His entourage included two types of cops: There were the off-duty LAPD officers who served as bodyguards. And then, Sargsyan said, there were the ones Termendzhyan called his “boys”: John Saro Balian, a detective for the Glendale Police Department, and Felix Cisneros Jr., a federal agent in the Department of Homeland Security.
In 2013, Termendzhyan made Sargsyan the president of his company, SBK Holdings USA, which issued high-interest bridge loans and bought real estate and aircraft — “anything that makes us money,” Termendzhyan said.
Sargsyan had been making $200,000 to $300,000 a year from credit card fraud, he testified at the trials of the agents he bribed. But the money he made with Termendzhyan was of a different scale.
Saying in bankruptcy court he was entitled to 20% of the company’s profits, Sargsyan estimated he was paid about $10 million over two years.
He began spending “left and right,” he told jurors in the FBI agent’s trial. Two people who knew him well and requested they not be named out of fear of reprisal said one of Sargsyan’s first outlays was to cover his teeth with porcelain veneers. Discolored from a childhood illness, they had been an abiding source of insecurity.
Sargsyan moved into a mansion in Sherman Oaks and bought a penthouse in Beverly Hills. He kept a pair of jets hangered at the Van Nuys airport. He underwent surgery in an attempt to remedy his thinning hair and retreating hair line. He testified that he invested $500,000 in a pornography company and $150,000 in a romantic comedy starring Sharon Stone.
But more than anything, Sargsyan tried to buy legitimacy.
Having failed to pass the bar multiple times, he invested $300,000 in a law firm, the Pillar Law Group, in return for a 90% stake as a “foreign law partner” and an office in the firm’s Rodeo Drive suite, he testified.
He also began donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians. His office’s walls were lined with photographs of himself shaking hands with Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, with Jerry Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Deukmejian.
There is no evidence Sargsyan’s money bought him anything more than handshakes and photos. But perhaps they gave him what he wanted: That flicker of respect when someone walked into his office, where he sat behind a large, polished desk, playing the part of a lawyer.
Gavin Newsom visited Sargsyan in his office during his first run for governor. The two were photographed pointing to the place on the wall where Newsom’s picture would go once he was elected.
Sargsyan, who, along with his wife, gave $45,500 to Newsom’s campaign, testified the candidate had come to see him because he’d organized a fundraiser for his campaign at a nearby cigar lounge. Newsom was photographed at the lounge as well, shaking hands with Balian as Cisneros looked on, smiling.
The governor’s office referred questions to his campaign spokesman, Nathan Click, who didn’t address questions about how Newsom met Sargsyan. Click said only that the campaign has donated the full amount of Sargsyan’s contributions to two public-interest law firms.
To drive his Bentley, Rolls Royce and Mercedes Benz, Sargsyan hired Artur Makhshikyan, whom he’d met years earlier while working as a legal assistant in the same building where Makhshikyan managed a shoe store.
In an interview, Makhshikyan said he would wait in the car outside Sargsyan’s favorite haunt, the Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills, while he socialized with celebrities inside the members-only cigar club until 1 or 2 a.m.
Makhshikyan, who said he has not spoken to Sargsyan in years, claimed he was paid only about $2,000 a month.
“Greed kills a person,” Makhshikyan said. Sargsyan “is a smart guy. He could have a peaceful life. You have money, you’re smart. But he’s greedy.”
Sargsyan admits he was free-spending. He picked up five-figure restaurant tabs, leased cars for his friends, paid for their hotel stays and jet travel, bought them liquor and cigars and sex.
But at the trial of an FBI agent he’d bribed, Sargsyan made a point to say he was not generous. “People had a purpose in my life,” he testified, “and I was compensating them for that purpose.”
‘Just take care of me’
Sargsyan was eating lunch at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel with a partner at his firm, Henrik Mosesi, when Mosesi mentioned a friend from law school was working as an FBI agent in San Francisco. Sargsyan proposed a meeting in Los Angeles, Mosesi told The Times in 2020.
They met at the Grand Havana Room. Sargsyan’s eyes were drawn to the slender, silver-haired agent’s suit, accented with a pocket square; to his Gucci belt; to his gold Rolex.
“Initially,” Sargsyan recalled, “I thought he was not an agent because of his appearance.”
Born in Iran, Babak Broumand fled the country during the Islamic Revolution when he was 13, settling with his mother and sister in Lakewood.
Spurred by a terror attack on a U.S. military barracks in Beirut, he joined the FBI in 1999 and was assigned to a national security squad in San Francisco, the only post he’d hold over a two-decade career. The Farsi-speaking agent earned a reputation and awards for cultivating informants with valuable information, a supervisor testified.
But Sargsyan sensed Broumand’s weakness for luxury. A few months later, he invited the agent to Las Vegas, where he’d rented a mansion for a weekend-long party. The two men were smoking cigars and a little drunk when Sargsyan asked about Broumand’s salary.
He expressed surprise when the agent said he made less than $200,000 a year, and proposed paying Broumand $10,000 a month to “just take care of me,” he said.
“We’ll talk about it,” the agent replied, according to Sargsyan.
When Broumand returned to L.A., he told Sargsyan, over cigars at the Grand Havana Room, he’d run Sargsyan’s name in a government database and saw he’d been investigated for credit card fraud. On the spot, Sargsyan said, they came to an agreement: $10,000 a month for “protection.”
At his trial on bribery charges, Broumand denied taking money from Sargsyan and said he considered the man an informal source who “haphazardly” provided information — including reports that Termendzhyan was either selling or purchasing oil from the Islamic State terrorist organization and supplying fuel to the Turkish government.
“When you work with sources, you have to make them believe you’re their best friend,” he told jurors.
Around this time, Sargsyan testified, he asked Broumand to search a name in his database.
Sargsyan was selling Demerol to Khalid Hamad al Thani, a member of Qatar’s royal family who was living at the time in Beverly Hills, he testified. He would buy the powerful opioid from a dentist and arrange for nurses to inject it into al Thani, he said.
Requests for comment sent to the Qatari consulate in Los Angeles — which is based in the same Rodeo Drive building as Sargsyan’s firm — and Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Washington D.C. embassy were not returned.
Al Thani would pay him “a few hundred thousand at a time” for the drugs, he testified. Jurors were shown bank records of two wire transfers for $199,000 and $400,000 from a “Sheikh Khalid Hamad K. al Thani” to Sargsyan’s law firm.
Sargsyan said he wanted Broumand to check if the sheikh was suspected of having ties to terrorists. When Broumand reported that he wasn’t, he bought the agent a red Ducati motorcycle and helmet for $36,000, he testified.
‘This secret stays between us’
The crowd at the Grand Havana Room included attorneys, an aide to the governor, two federal agents, a Glendale detective, a Beverly Hills policeman and several criminals.
They had been invited by Sargsyan to celebrate what had eluded him for so long: He’d been admitted at last to the California bar.
Waiters carried platters piled with salmon, shrimp and rack of lamb. Holding snifters of cognac and glasses of red wine, men — and it was all men — toasted Sargsyan, who wore a pale grey suit with an elegant pinstripe.
It was, it turns out, a grand celebration of a lie. Six years later, after swearing to agents, prosecutors, juries and bankruptcy trustees he’d been a licensed attorney, Sargsyan disclosed on the eve of Broumand’s trial that he’d never actually passed the bar. Mosesi, his law partner, had taken it for him, he testified in the agent’s trial.
After failing the test in 2008 and 2010, Sargsyan testified, he paid Mosesi $20,000 a month to study for the exam — $140,000 in all. To fool test administrators, he gave Mosesi a forged driver’s license with Mosesi’s face and Sargsyan’s name.
Sargsyan testified that he kept the scheme secret for years — even as he admitted defrauding banks, stealing people’s identities, bribing agents and selling drugs — because he was “ashamed and embarrassed.” He said he did not want his family to know he was not a real lawyer, something he considered “very important” to his identity.
Mosesi, who did not return messages from The Times, invoked his 5th Amendment rights when called to testify at Broumand’s trial.
After Mosesi passed the exam, the men traveled to Sacramento with their third partner, Art Kalantar, Sargsyan said at Broumand’s trial. Standing outside the state Capitol, he recalled telling them: “This secret stays between us. Even if one day we become enemies, we will never use this against each other.”
Then Sargsyan walked into the Capitol to be sworn into the bar by Kevin de León, who at the time was president pro tempore of the state senate. It is unclear how Sargsyan secured the honor, but campaign finance records show he and his wife contributed $25,200 to De León’s campaigns for state senator, lieutenant governor and Los Angeles City Council.
A photograph, taken after the ceremony in De Leon’s office, shows Sargsyan with his arm around the senate leader.
“On this day, I was proud,” Sargsyan said.
‘It’s funny, this country. It’s real funny.’
One person was conspicuously absent from Sargsyan’s party.
By that point, Termendzhyan no longer considered Sargsyan his right hand or a younger brother. He considered him a thief.
He sued Sargsyan, claiming he’d embezzled some $23 million from his company and bought a private jet with his money.
“He’s a good talker,” Termendzhyan said in the deposition, “likes to have pictures with presidents, and likes to steal our money and give it to Hillary Clinton to make it look good for him. It’s funny, this country. It’s real funny.”
When he heard Termendzhyan had discovered the money was missing, Sargsyan panicked and frantically told Kalantar to remove the company’s documents from their law office, Mosesi told Broumand’s private investigator. A report of the interview was filed in court.
If Termendzhyan got ahold of the paperwork, “I’m dead,” Sargsyan said, according to Mosesi. “My life is over.”
Sargsyan’s defense attorney, Robert Dugdale, denied Mosesi’s account.
Convinced that Termendzhyan was having him followed, Sargsyan testified that he asked a Beverly Hills policeman to rent him a car, a Dodge Challenger Hellcat. The officer “just went there and signed the paperwork,” Sargsyan said.
Around this time, Sargsyan began spilling to investigators what he’d seen of how his onetime benefactor did business: the fuel diverted from Native Americans and sold in Los Angeles, the cash piled up in the trailer, the properties bought with duffel bags full of money.
Armed with Sargsyan’s statements, among other evidence, detectives and federal agents assigned to a task force based at the port of Long Beach got a warrant in August 2017 to search Termendzhyan’s businesses and home.
In the trailer, just as Sargsyan had described, the task force found $1,329,466 in cash, according to a search warrant return.
Sargsyan also told IRS agents that Termendzhyan was doing business with members of a polygamist cult in Utah who were claiming tax credits for biofuel they never produced, fleecing the federal government of an estimated $511 million. He flew to Washington D.C. to tell Justice Department prosecutors about the scheme.
In his deposition, Termendzhyan said he knew Sargsyan was talking to the government about his dealings in Utah. In his cocksure way, he dismissed the investigation as an audit. “Nothing to worry about.”
Then Sargsyan testified before a grand jury in Utah, which indicted Termendzhyan in 2018. Convicted of 10 counts of fraud and money laundering, Termendzhyan now sits in jail, facing up to life in prison when he is sentenced.
When Termendzhyan sued over the alleged theft, his lawyers sent Sargsyan’s creditors “a very bad and nasty letter,” claiming he’d used stolen money for down payments on his properties and planes, Sargsyan testified in bankruptcy court. “And the bank said, ‘You know what? He’s a big concern for us.’”
The lawsuit “destroyed 80% of my financial cash flow,” Sargsyan told the court. He was reduced to borrowing from friends to “survive,” he said.
One was Balian, who, without his wife’s knowledge, borrowed $148,000 against their Seal Beach home and loaned it to Sargsyan, according to documents reviewed by The Times.
Sargsyan told the bankruptcy court he had sources of income other than his friends’ generosity, but refused to say what they were.
“With all due respect,” he said, “I don’t want to answer questions that is not related to this bankruptcy.”
He has since admitted that when Termendzhyan’s money stopped flowing, when he lacked the capital to buy real estate or invest in Hollywood films, he turned to dealing drugs.
Sargsyan grew cannabis in warehouses in Vernon, an industrial city southeast of downtown Los Angeles, he testified. Before starting a grow, he would ask Balian, who was assigned to a narcotics squad, to run the address in police databases to see if there was any “heat” from law enforcement, Sargsyan said.
Sargsyan testified he compensated Balian with marijuana, which he claimed the detective sold through a dispensary where his daughter worked. He also gave Balian cash on occasion and leased him a BMW, he said.
Through his attorney, Balian declined to comment. He served 21 months in prison after pleading guilty in 2018 to three public corruption offenses, none related to his relationship with Sargsyan.
Sargsyan sold up to 100 pounds of cannabis at a time, which made him profits “in the hundreds of thousands,” he said at Broumand’s trial. He didn’t name his customers, but three law enforcement sources said one of them was Tommy Moreno.
Dugdale denied this, telling The Times, “Indeed, Mr. Sargsyan does not even know who Tommy Moreno is.”
An admitted member of the Mexican Mafia — a group of about 140 men who control Latino gang members inside and out of prison — Moreno has been incarcerated since 1983 for bank robbery and attacking another prisoner at the penitentiary in Lompoc.
Moreno was using a San Bernardino County jail phone when authorities overheard him ask an underling from the Varrio Norwalk gang if he’d met with “the director,” according to a law enforcement official who wasn’t authorized to discuss the case and requested anonymity.
Agents tracked the gang member, Michael “Mikio” Blanco, to a motel in Ontario, where they found a gun in his waistband and methamphetamine, heroin and evidence of identity theft in his room, according to court records.
“From nothing he made something, and now I believe he’s lost everything.”
Blanco told them “the director” was Sargsyan, saying he’d met the man he’d known to be a lawyer at his office in Beverly Hills to broker purchases of marijuana, the law enforcement official said.
Three months after Blanco was booked at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles on gun and drug charges, jail staff found the 35-year-old on the floor of his cell, a coroner’s report says. His death was ruled an accidental fentanyl overdose.
At trials, Sargsyan was not asked about Blanco or Moreno. He did, however, admit going to the San Bernardino County jail to visit another Mexican Mafia member, Jose “Cartune” Loza, who was facing charges of racketeering and murder.
In a visiting room reserved for attorneys, the man who’d once made small talk with governors and presidents conferred with Loza, whose underworld ties are inked on his body: Frogs and musical notes for his street gang, the Canta Ranas, or Singing Frogs, across his chest. The black hand of the Mexican Mafia on his right arm.
Sargsyan testified that he was passing messages between Loza and Balian. Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys pressed Sargsyan on what those messages were. His status as a lawyer meant their conversations were not monitored or recorded.
Sargsyan pleaded guilty in 2020 to five felonies: bank fraud, bribing Broumand and Cisneros, and lying twice to federal authorities. He is tentatively scheduled to be sentenced in March. He faces decades in prison but is likely to get much less time after testifying against his onetime associates.
Broumand and Cisneros were both convicted this year of taking bribes from Sargsyan and laundering the money he gave them. A judge ordered Cisneros to serve 10 years in prison. Broumand has yet to be sentenced.
Today Sargsyan lives in a condominium in Glendale, according to records filed in a lawsuit brought by the owner of the mansion he once lived in, who sued over tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid rent. Sargsyan testified he is once again working a low-level job at a law firm in Encino, helping manage the office and find clients.
“From nothing he made something, and now I believe he’s lost everything,” said Makhshikyan, Sargsyan’s former driver. “At least that’s what I hear. I wish him the best.”
One evening in September, after testifying in Broumand’s trial, Sargsyan waited near a bus stop across the street from the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. Had a man once chauffeured in a Bentley been reduced to taking the bus?
Then a black Lincoln Navigator with tinted windows glided to the curb. Sargsyan got in, and the SUV sped off.