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Lawyer's role in smuggling ring ends in resignation

A Tarzana criminal defense lawyer who pleaded guilty to involvement in an international smuggling ring that brought hundreds of Ukrainian nationals into the United States and forced some into prostitution has resigned from the State Bar. ALEX VAN KOVN [#200355] , 42, gave up his license Sept. 29.

He had been placed on interim suspension May 27 following convictions for attempted witness tampering, filing a false statement, and harboring undocumented aliens.

A Russian-born U.S. citizen, Van Kovn had been a California lawyer only since 1999. Along with 17 other people, he was indicted last year for smuggling at least 200 people and possibly as many as 2,000 Ukrainians through Mexico into the U.S. Together, the defendants were charged in a 22-count federal indictment.

According to federal prosecutors, the smugglers charged $7,000 per person but some were forced to pay more. An affidavit filed when the group was arrested said a travel agency, Svit Tours, in Kiev, Ukraine, offered a "full smuggling package" to those wishing to find their way to the United States.

According to the indictment, illegal immigrants were brought into the U.S. via boat, the international port of entry at San Ysidro and unfenced portions of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Leaders of the smuggling ring allegedly lured young women with promises of employment as models, actresses and escorts. Once they arrived in this country, however, some women were forced into prostitution.

The operation was discovered by chance when a U.S. Border Patrol agent found a video camera on an east San Diego County trail known to be used by smugglers bringing people to the U.S. from Mexico. A videotape showed a Ukrainian family documenting their trip for a family history.

Shortly after the camera's discovery, authorities arrested a Mexican-American guide smuggling five Ukrainians and began a special investigation which lasted 14 months. Agencies involved included the FBI, U.S. Border Patrol, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Attorney.

At the time the indictments were handed down, U.S. Attorney John S. Gordon said the case "illustrates the increasing sophistication of crime rings that smuggle people into the United States. The methods used by alien smugglers and the increasingly exhorbitant sums charged for their services are a testament to the law enforcement authorities fighting these organized groups."

Those arrested were charged with conspiracy to smuggle, transport and harbor illegal immigrants and money laundering. Prosecutors said Van Kovn helped support and harbor the smuggled women and sell them as prostitutes to Lyuda Petushenko, a Ukrainian madam connected to the smuggling ring. He also was charged with providing fraudulent documents to some of the aliens.

At the time of his arrest, Van Kovn was defending a murder suspect who was charged in Petushenko's slaying.

Van Kovn was due to be sentenced last month and faced up to two years in prison. Meanwhile, Van Kovn was acquitted in March in an insurance fraud case in Pennsylvania, despite testimony from a government witness prosecutors said was part of the defendants' scheme. Van Kovn and two Russian immigrants were charged with insurance fraud, theft by deception and theft of leased property.

The case began in New York in 1998, when Van Kovn reported to police that a $130,000 black Mercedes Benz convertible he had borrowed from a client in Philadelphia was stolen while he dined at Odessa, a hip East Village restaurant. Prosecutors said the car was, in fact, enroute to St. Petersburg, Russia.

Glenn Parno, a prosecutor with the Attorney General's office, said the defendants had conspired to lease the car, fake its theft, ship it to Russia and bill State Farm Insurance for its loss.

Had they been convicted, the defendants would have faced up to 35 years in prison. A fourth defendant, who told jurors he had smuggled the Mercedes and at least 10 other luxury cars to Russia, was sentenced to five years of probation and was ordered to pay $138,000 to State Farm and another insurance company. He pleaded guilty to insurance fraud.

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