Pulled over in Burbank for driving without license plates, the man in the black Cadillac Escalade offered the police an explanation: The FBI used the car for official business.
Then Edgar Sargsyan, a phony lawyer who had made a fortune through identity theft, pulled a laminated piece of paper out of the glovebox and handed it to the officers. It was a parking placard that had a U.S. Department of Justice seal on one side and an FBI agent's business card taped to the back.
Sargsyan thought the placard would get him out of a minor jam. Instead, it set in motion a cascade of events that led to the conviction Tuesday of a decorated FBI agent on federal charges of bribery and money laundering.
Jurors found that the agent, Babak Broumand, shared confidential information about FBI investigations with Sargsyan in exchange for monthly cash payments and other bribes. Although the panel acquitted Broumand on two charges and decided that the government cannot seize a Lake Tahoe vacation home prosecutors claimed was bought with dirty money, he still faces up to 15 years in prison. Broumand's attorney, Steve Gruel, said he planned to appeal the verdict.
The 11-day trial in downtown Los Angeles threw a spotlight on the relationship between Broumand and Sargsyan, whose mansions in Sherman Oaks and Calabasas, a fleet of luxury cars and two private jets were financed by crime.
Sargsyan, who has pleaded guilty to bribing Broumand and another federal agent, lying to federal authorities and defrauding banks, testified at the trial in hopes of getting a reduced sentence.
The two men seemed to have little in common. Broumand, who emigrated as a child from Iran and joined the FBI in 1999, worked for 20 years in the bureau's San Francisco office staving off terrorist attacks and other threats to national security.
Sargsyan came to the United States from Armenia at 23 with little more than a tourist visa and a job offer that didn't pan out, he testified. He has admitted making a small fortune by stealing people's identities, then racking up credit card charges and taking out bank loans in their names that were never repaid. And he claimed to be an attorney, but this too was a scam: He'd paid a friend and furnished him with false identification to take the bar exam on his behalf.
A partner at Sargsyan's firm who went to law school with the agent introduced the men in 2014 over cigars at the Grand Havana Room, a members-only lounge in Beverly Hills. Sargsyan testified that Broumand, who wore a suit accented with a pocket square, a Gucci belt and a gold Rolex glinting on his wrist, did not look the part of an FBI agent.
Well before meeting Broumand, Sargsyan had surrounded himself with law enforcement officials to shield him from investigations that were something of an occupational hazard. A prolific criminal, he was not just committing credit card scams; he testified that he oversaw a company that laundered millions of dollars in profits from a biofuel fraud and was also growing marijuana on an industrial scale.
John Saro Balian, a detective for the Glendale Police Department, and Felix Cisneros Jr., a special agent from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, were close associates. But Sargsyan wanted to meet Broumand, he said, because "I thought that the FBI had a higher authority than any other agency."
At the cigar lounge, Sargsyan and Broumand talked about "politics and life."
"We hit it off," said Broumand, who testified in his own defense. "He had a great personality."
A few months later, Broumand met Sargsyan in Las Vegas, where Sargsyan threw a weekend-long party at a rented mansion. Both men were smoking cigars and a little drunk when Sargsyan asked about the agent's government salary. He was surprised, he said, when Broumand told him he made less than $200,000 a year.
Sargsyan said he proposed supplementing this with $10,000 a month in cash. "Just take care of me," he recalled saying. "If there's anything in the system that you can protect, you can shield me [from]."
Broumand, he said, replied: "We'll talk about it."
When he returned to San Francisco, Broumand ran Sargsyan's name through an FBI database, as well as his firm, the Pillar Law Group, and Levon Termendzhyan, a petroleum magnate for whom Sargsyan worked.
Broumand told jurors that he considered Sargsyan a "contact," or informal source, who was providing information about matters of national security that were relevant to his work as an agent. "Generally," he said, "I'm interested in heads of state, scientists, people who are movers and shakers in their respective countries."
Sargsyan, he said, had told him that Termendzhyan was involved in petroleum sales with the Islamic State terrorist organization, also known as ISIS, and the Turkish government.
When he ran Termendzhyan's name through the FBI database, Broumand saw he was being investigated by agents in Los Angeles. He arranged a meeting with one of them at a cafeteria near the FBI office on Wilshire Boulevard.
The agent, Stephen Kusin, recalled Broumand saying he had a "personal relationship" with someone close to Termendzhyan who could be a potential source. Broumand said he'd talk to the possible source and report back if he was willing to meet with Kusin.
Sargsyan picked up Broumand outside the FBI building in Los Angeles in his Bentley. Broumand called Kusin later that day and said his source wasn't willing to meet, Kusin testified.
Broumand stayed in L.A. that weekend, put up on Sargsyan's dime at the Beverly Hills Montage, according to hotel records shown to the jury.
Back at the Grand Havana Room that weekend, the agent said he'd seen in an FBI database that Sargsyan had been investigated six years earlier for defrauding the First National Bank of Omaha, Sargsyan testified. He took this as "proof" of Broumand's access to confidential information, he said, as he had in fact defrauded that particular bank. Sargsyan testified he and Broumand agreed to a $10,000 monthly "protection" fee and said he made the payments for a year and a half.
That night, Sargsyan introduced Broumand to Termendzhyan at the Montage's 10 Pound bar. Termendzhyan, who had cultivated law enforcement connections of his own, was "very aggressive," Sargsyan testified, questioning whether Broumand was even an agent. When Broumand offered to give Termendzhyan a tour of his office in San Francisco, Sargsyan said, the fuel magnate replied: "I'm your boss. I can give you a tour of your own office."
Broumand testified that he'd gone to the bar to try to cultivate Termendzhyan as an intelligence source. He'd seen photographs of Termendzhyan with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And according to what Sargsyan was telling him, "It seemed like he was involved with getting oil from ISIS," Broumand testified. "Either selling it to ISIS or purchasing it from ISIS."
Sargsyan said he also brought Broumand into his illicit dealings with a Qatari sheikh.
Sargsyan testified he was supplying Khalid Hamad Al-Thani, a member of Qatar's royal family who was then living in Los Angeles, with Demerol, a powerful opioid used to treat pain. Jurors were shown bank records of six-figure wire transfers from the sheikh to Sargsyan's law firm - payments Sargsyan said were for narcotics.
Wary of drawing unwanted attention, Sargsyan said he asked Broumand to check if the sheikh was suspected of having ties to terrorists. When Broumand reported back that he wasn't, Sargsyan bought the agent a red Ducati motorcycle and helmet that cost $36,000, he said.
"I made money with Al-Thani - a lot of money - so I didn't mind paying forty, $30,000," Sargsyan said.
Broumand testified that he accepted the motorcycle as a gift, not a bribe. Investigators conceded they could find no record of the agent running Al-Thani's name in any databases.
When Sargsyan's Demerol supply - provided by a dentist he didn't name - dried up, he turned to Broumand, who said he would ask a DEA agent with access to prescription drugs, according to Sargsyan.
"My guy has the medicine in non-liquid form," Broumand wrote in a text message shown to the jury. "Should I get it?
"Big no-no brother, he can't take pills," Sargsyan replied. He testified that the sheikh would only take Demerol in injections.
Broumand testified he never intended to obtain Demerol and didn't know a DEA agent who could get it.
It was the parking placard, which Broumand said he gave to Sargsyan as a "joke," that alerted the agent's supervisors to his relationship with Sargsyan.
Sargsyan used the placard to park at red curbs on Rodeo Drive. But after he flashed it to the Burbank officers, hoping it would get him out of a ticket, the officers seized it, and Broumand's supervisor in San Francisco started asking the agent questions.
Needing a cover story, Sargsyan said he pushed Broumand to register him as an official FBI source. In text messages, they referred to this as the "marriage certificate."
"Let me ask my dad's permission so I can ask your hand in marriage," Broumand wrote. Sargsyan said he understood this to mean the agent would ask his supervisor to approve signing him up as a source.
"You love me," Sargsyan replied. "You can't walk away from love."
This was a joke, Sargsyan testified, but it was also his way of telling Broumand he could no longer pull away from their corrupt alliance.
In addition to the monthly cash payments, Sargsyan testified he funneled money to Broumand by purchasing the inventory of his late father's menswear shop for $30,000. Sargsyan then donated the clothes to charity, he said. The jurors found this payment was not a bribe.
Sargsyan also gave Broumand a $30,000 check that the agent put toward a down payment on a $1.25-million vacation home with a view of Lake Tahoe. Broumand admitted that when he applied for a loan, he drew up a phony document to explain the source of the money, claiming he'd sold a boat to Sargsyan.
In 2016, Sargsyan threw a lavish party at the Grand Havana Room to celebrate being admitted to the state bar. This too was a fraud: On the eve of Broumand's trial, Sargsyan disclosed he'd actually paid a partner at his firm, Henrik Mosesi, about $140,000 to take the exam on his behalf. He said he'd given Mosesi a false ID and instructed him to smear his fingerprint to fool the test's biometric safeguards.
Sargsyan admitted that he'd failed to disclose the scam to prosecutors for years and perjured himself when he testified before a grand jury that he was a lawyer.
At the cigar lounge, Cisneros, the Homeland Security agent, became rowdy after downing Moscow mules and shots of tequila, according to a report that Broumand wrote after the party. Broumand told Sargsyan he thought the agent was "trouble," Sargsyan recalled.
Afterward, Broumand searched for Cisneros' name in an FBI database, which showed he was the subject of a corruption investigation. Broumand told the FBI agent investigating Cisneros, Brian Adkins, that he had run into the Homeland Security agent at a party and decided to search his name out of a "sixth sense," Adkins testified.
"I became incredibly suspicious of Mr. Broumand," Adkins said.
The FBI's internal affairs division opened an investigation into the placard incident and database search for Cisneros. As the probe dragged on for more than two years, Broumand was allowed to keep his security clearance and continue working. He became the confidential human source coordinator for the San Francisco office, giving him access to some of the bureau's most closely held secrets - the identities of its informants.
As late as Dec. 3, 2018, Broumand's supervisor sought his input on a training curriculum for new agents on handling sources. "He had 20 years of experience," said the supervisor, Jonathan G. Kelly, who is now retired. "I respected what he thought."
Two days later, agents from the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and Department of Justice's inspector general raided Broumand's home and searched his office. Kelly was tasked with returning Broumand's personal belongings to him as he'd been barred from the building, his security clearance revoked.
Kelly acknowledged that Broumand had a reputation - had even received awards - for recruiting sources whose information was vital to the country's security. Asked if the FBI's New York office had ever sought his help, Kelly said, "If I talk about that truthfully, I'll get into classified information."
As Kelly spoke, Broumand, who'd watched previous testimony without emotion, quietly began to cry.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.