Iranian-Jewish community split on Namvar sentencing

Reaction in the Iranian-Jewish community appeared divided on the guilt and punishment of Ezri Namvar, a longtime leading businessman and philanthropist, who was sentenced Oct. 11 to seven years in federal prison for stealing $21 million from four clients.

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson also ordered Namvar, 60, to pay back $21 million in restitution to his victims and put him under three years’ supervision following his prison term.

Marc S. Harris, Namvar’s attorney, said he would appeal the sentence and described his client as a man of good character who had “donated millions of dollars to numerous charities, schools and medical research centers, locally and internationally.”

In a phone interview, Dr. Kamran Berookhim, a physician and chairman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, blamed Namvar’s plight mainly on the economic meltdown and the insistence of a few creditors with forcing Namvar into bankruptcy.

Emphasizing that he was speaking as a private person, Berookhim put some responsibility on Namvar’s “megalomania,” coupled with an attitude of “if I’ve this much money, why not make more?”

Berookhim noted that his federation’s mediation committee had been ready to settle the dispute between Namvar and his creditors, but that the possibility was foreclosed by the bankruptcy proceedings.

By contrast, Abraham Assil, who said he lost $6 million in a loan to Namvar, told The Journal that the judge’s seven-year sentence was too short. “Justice was not done,” Assil said. “He should have gotten 20 to 30 years.”

Assil, an industrial real estate developer, believes that some 200 people were victimized by Namvar, “of whom 90 percent were from the Iranian-Jewish community.” Of these, 80 percent were small investors, many of whom lost their life savings and are now condemned to lives of poverty, Assil said.

“I was the man who forced Namvar into bankruptcy,” Assil asserted, saying that otherwise all of the money would have been lost or given to favored family members and friends.

“At least this way we were able to reclaim $200 million, to be distributed among the victims,” Assil said.

Assil commented that he had known Namvar for some 30 years before making the $6 million loan, with repayment guaranteed by signed notes from Namvar and his family members.

During the sentencing, Anderson described Namvar, who wept at times, as a man who had lost his way after immigrating and building a successful real estate investment empire from scratch, according to media reports.

In addition to the $21 million, Namvar is believed to have bilked investors — who put money into his $2.5 billion real estate portfolio before the 2008 market crash — of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Since many of his victims were residents of the large Iranian-Jewish enclave in Beverly Hills, some media took to labeling Namvar as “the Bernie Madoff of Beverly Hills.”

A number of elderly victims told the court that Namvar had robbed them of their lifetime and retirement savings.

In an early 2010 cover story in The Jewish Journal about Namvar’s dealings and other business scandals in the Iranian Jewish community, reporter Karmel Melamed wrote that, even after all the legal issues were settled, “There is fear that longer-term damage could persist and that the [Iranian-Jewish] community’s once stellar reputation in the business world has been forever scarred.”