Attorney Mark Geragos Sues L.A. Times For Libel Over Armenian Genocide Settlement Reports

The defense attorney has filed a complaint over stories he says included false statements about his role in the disbursement of funds to victims’ families

Defense attorney Mark Geragos filed a lawsuit against The Los Angeles Times and three of its Pulitzer-prize-winning investigative reporters on Friday for libel, “false light” invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Geragos alleges that a series of stories published in 2022 falsely imply that 15 years ago, he and his then-co-counsel were involved in the already-established fraud involving the disbursement of settlement funds to a small subset of the victims of the Armenian genocide and related charities. In a 45-page complaint, Geragos contends that he and his co-counsel had actually helped to uncover and prosecute the fraud and worked to deepen the investigation, and the Times reporters ignored those facts.

“I’m a big boy,” Geragos tells LAMag“I’ve been doing this for 40 years, I understand reporters have their job and I have great respect for the role of journalism and reporters.” (Disclosure: In December, Geragos co-founded Engine Vision Media, which owns Los Angeles magazine.)

The Times story at the heart of the libel accusation looks back at a series of lawsuits brought against New York Life and then French insurance giant AXA in 1999 and 2002, respectively, filed by Armenian-American lawyer Vartkes Yeghiayan over life insurance policies held by victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide that were not honored by the companies. 

Kabateck, and then Geragos, joined the case in 2001; in addition to obtaining funds for victims’ families, the case is widely seen as having served as a means to force the judicial branch of the U.S. government to acknowledge the Armenian genocide occurred at all.

The cases ended with New York Life settling for $20 million in 2004. AXA, the French company,  settled for $17.5 million the following year. In addition to paying legal fees and court costs, the settlement funds were to be distributed to families of victims who could prove their ancestors had taken out life insurance policies from those companies before the genocide. The remainder was agreed to be delivered to Armenian diaspora charities and churches.

By all accounts, the disbursement of funds from the New York Life settlement—overseen by a claims administrator recommended by Yeghiayan, who reported to a board appointed by the California State Insurance Commission—ran smoothly. And by all accounts, the disbursement of funds from the AXA Settlement, overseen by the same claims administrator in Los Angeles reporting to a three-member board of prominent French Armenians in France, did not.

The claims administrator, Parsegh Kartalian, was reported to the courts by Geragos and Kabateck for fraud, for diverting $2.5 million to an account only he controlled. Local lawyer Berj Boyajian was discovered to have diverted nearly $600,000 to accounts under his sole control and was prosecuted for false statements to the State Bar of California; he lost his law license and returned most of the funds after the fraud was revealed to the court). Yeghiayan and his wife, Rita Mahdessian, were brought up on State Bar of California charges for allegedly diverting money from the settlement fund; Yeghiayan died in 2017 before the charges could be heard and Mahdessian’s case was thrown out after she told the Bar it was her husband’s doing. 

The Times reporting on the subject has implied that Geragos played a role in the malfeasance and mismanagement that accompanied the disbursement of the French funds. Geragos strongly disputes this implication, pointing out that three State Bar of California investigations into the case before 2022 absolved him and Kabateck of any wrongdoing.

“This case is the single most investigated case by every single agency up and down the state,” Geragos tells LAMag. “I referred it to the D.A.’s office. Brian was the one who referred it to the State Bar. Brian and I wrote a letter to the Attorney General. I had not only State Bar investigators, but D.A. investigators looking into it; I gave them full, unfettered access to all of these documents. The people who the Times tried to lionize… all invoked the Fifth Amendment; I cooperated with every agency.”

In the initial investigative piece and subsequent articles, however, the Times repeatedly invokes Geragos’ and Kabateck’s names. All of the 2022 reports further accuse the two of somehow improperly funding “pet charities”—including the Loyola School of Law’s Center for the Study of Law and Genocide and a local Armenian church; it also repeats claims that some charitable organizations said they never received the money. Geragos says he provided the Times reporters with bank statements and other records showing the churches did receive that money more than a decade prior, but the reporters refused to accept the records as a refutation of the claims. (Geragos’s lawsuit also contains a long memo from Kabateck’s lawyer refuting many of the claims point-by-point.)

Hillary Manning, a spokesperson for the L.A. Times, denied Geragos’ allegations and defended the reporting. 

“We performed a public service by publishing this story,” she said in a statement to LAMag. “We encourage people to read the reporting for themselves to get a better understanding of the difficulties that Armenian people encountered when trying to access settlement money related to the Armenian genocide. We will vigorously defend the Los Angeles Times and our journalists against this baseless litigation.”

In an interview with LAMag on Sept. 27, Geragos also took issue with the Times calling the Center for the Study of Law and Genocide at Loyola—his alma mater— a pet charity.

“Can you imagine you’re a Jewish lawyer and they call the Lowenstein Center at Fordham a ‘pet charity’?” he asked LAMag in September. “It smacks of racism.”

In the lawsuit, Geragos notes that subsequent reporting—even on stories unrelated to the Armenian settlement—repeated claims about the case. Geragos’ and Kabateck’s pictures and boilerplate copy about the investigation accompanied multiple stories, including articles about convicted lawyer Tom Girardi and the Bar’s tendency to crack down harder on Black lawyers than white ones.

Geragos also claims the paper appeared to be attempting to pressure the State Bar of California to open a fourth investigation into the case. The Bar did ultimately open an investigation in September, despite an email provided in the lawsuit that suggests the body knew there was no new information in the Times story and the case had been fully investigated before it was published.

“At a certain point, it was what I considered to be the most outrageous breach of journalism–I don’t even call it ethics,” he says. “Combined with this kind of malicious campaign to try to take me down and try to get the State Bar to investigate, and everything else, it’s beyond the pale. That’s not journalism. That’s something else. That’s more of what more people would say is the opposition research in a political campaign.”

In the lawsuit, Geragos also alleges that his relationship with the reporters deteriorated after his clients—one of whom was at the center of the paper’s news-breaking 2017 story about the drug-fueled escapades of then-USC Medical School Dean Carmen Puliafito—withdrew their cooperation in the wake of a settlement he negotiated with Puliafito and the university on their behalf.

That settlement became the subject of a September 2021 Times story that implies Geragos and his clients destroyed potential evidence in an ongoing criminal investigation. 

“This whole idea that somehow evidence was destroyed: Evidence was not destroyed,” he said. “It is a very common practice to have the plaintiff—as distinguished from the lawyers—turn over everything that they have. That doesn’t mean that the lawyer doesn’t maintain it. It doesn’t mean that law enforcement doesn’t get access to it.”

Both law enforcement and the reporters had a copy of the evidence in question at the time of the settlement in 2018, Geragos notes. The Times’s own reporting indicates that the D.A. declined to press charges in the case before the settlement was finalized and his clients destroyed their personal electronic records.

He said he believes that the bad blood generated by the Puliafito story, as well as an apparent desire to find another “Tom Girardi story” after being scooped led to the reporters pursuing stories about him in bad faith—and ones in which their own reporting did not justify the explicit and implicit allegations against him.

“They had an agenda. They had conclusions. They weren’t going to be deterred by the facts,” he says. “The one thing that they’re going to be deterred by is a lawsuit.”

But he’s not looking for a payout.

“I want the Times to acknowledge that what they did was wrong, and I want the record corrected, and I’ll go on my merry way,” he says. “If I don’t do it—if I don’t take a stand as a lawyer who fortunately has the resources to pursue something like this—then who’s going to?”

[Editor’s note: Mark Geragos is a co-founder of Engine Vision Media, which owns Los Angeles as well as other properties. The company’s owners play no part in our journalism. We first reported on this story in September 2022, months prior to the magazine’s sale to Engine.]