The Con Continues

A special update on issue number 69, “Not Fuzz.”

By David Mark Simpson

There are some stories that a writer just can’t quit. As any obsessive journalist knows, there is always another source to call, another thread to tug. There are also stories that themselves won’t quit. For me, “Not Fuzz” became both.

If you haven’t read the story—Atavist number 69, published in July 2017—here is a quick summary, with spoilers: Steve Farzam is a luxury-hotel executive in Santa Monica, California. He is also a serial impersonator of law-enforcement and rescue professionals. Since at least the late 1990s, he has reportedly pretended to be a firefighter, a police officer, and even a federal agent. His close friend Christopher Dancel played along until, in 2014, Dancel turned on Farzam and became a federal informant. Eventually, based in part on Dancel’s cooperation, law enforcement raided Farzam’s home, a mansion where he kept police paraphernalia, high-caliber weapons, and an actual fire truck. The State of California brought 77 charges against the hotelier; all but four were felonies. Farzam pleaded no contest to three charges—all felonies—and his penalty was light. In 2015, he was sentenced to 182 days behind bars, of which he’d served 90 while awaiting sentencing, and he was credited with time served. He also got five years probation. The judge told Farzam, “You violate probation, the consequences will be very serious. Do we understand each other?” Farzam said yes. He was released from custody and continued working as the COO of the Shore Hotel.

Fast-forward to early 2020 and Farzam is again facing criminal charges. This time, The Atavist is wrapped up in the case. It appears that, when the magazine stood up to Farzam’s legal threats, it became another target of his deceptions. (Farzam did not respond to a request for comment.)

Reporting “Not Fuzz” was a strange experience to say the least. Because Farzam is a prolific impersonator, the Atavist team used a code phrase for identity-verification purposes when communicating with each other about the story. We weren’t the only ones being careful: A California Department of Justice agent whom I spoke to dozens of times refused to interact via email because he was afraid Farzam might hack my account or create one with which he’d pretend to be me. I learned this after I signed an initial email simply “Dave” and got a call moments later. “Dave who?” the DOJ official demanded in a harsh tone.

Like a paranoid character in a movie, I checked parked cars for people who might be watching me and looked over my shoulder constantly. This continued after the story was published and more details about Farzam shook loose. People who had encountered him over the years reached out to me with their stories—an ex-girlfriend, police officers, alleged victims of his cons. I learned little things that I’d missed. For instance, ChristopherDancel.com, a website that smeared Farzam’s former friend, included downloadable .docx files with properties that identified their author as “Steve Farzam.” The domain expired in February 2020. Eventually, Dancel would file a lawsuit against Farzam alleging that the hotelier created the website. “Most importantly, defendant makes the defamatory statement at the top of the page next to plaintiff’s name, ‘scam artist’, along side the copying of the ‘rip-off’ report, basically alleging that plaintiff had committed a criminal fraud against defendant or someone else, which [w]as not a truthful statement,” the suit states. The case is ongoing. (Dancel, who did not come off well in my article, has said that he never wants to speak to me again.)

Over time my anxiety ebbed. My phone wasn’t hacked. I didn’t receive harassing emails. No one seemed to be following me. One evening a few months after publication, I set off walking from my home in Los Angeles with no particular destination in mind. Six hours later, deep in thought, having covered 14 miles with stops and starts, I came to the Pacific Ocean. It was a little before midnight. I lay in the sand listening to music, then walked up to Ocean Avenue, where my eyes caught the hazy, jewel-toned lights of Farzam’s hotel. I realized I hadn’t thought about him all night.

In early 2018, an attorney representing Farzam sent The Atavist a letter via email. Her name was Isabel Ashorzadeh, and the address of her law practice was a penthouse at the Shore Hotel. Quick internet sleuthing indicated that she was Farzam’s wife. They had been married shortly after “Not Fuzz” was published. (Videos available online appear to show Farzam skydiving into the venue where the wedding was held.)

Ashorzadeh’s letter stated that a private investigator was researching my work, and it demanded that The Atavist take down my article, in part because the reporting relied on documents sealed by the California courts. Because a court opts to seal documents doesn’t mean that a reporter is barred from using or publishing them, but in this case it didn’t matter. I was sure  Ashorzadeh was wrong. I had been over the docket dozens of times and never saw an order sealing any of the documents I used in the story. I checked the docket again. I also spoke with the prosecution. Both confirmed my understanding.

In February 2018, Farzam asked the courts to terminate his probation early. He explained that he was about to graduate from the Taft Law School—an online institution—and that his felony convictions were the only thing preventing him from taking the California bar exam. The state attorney general opposed the request and criticized a claim made by Farzam’s defense that he had what it called a “hero complex addiction.” A court filing from the state AG’s office reads, “A hero would not call a Supervising Deputy District Attorney … pretending to be with the FBI to get a girl he wants to impress out of a DUI. A hero would not import assault weapons into California and then sell them to his friends. Defendant has done all of this and more.” Eventually, Farzam’s bid was withdrawn.

He did get a degree that spring, but it wasn’t quite what he had represented it to be. Christine Baldwin, the registrar for the Taft Law School, told me that Farzam completed a program called juris doctor-executive track in May 2018. That granted him a law-based certification. “This is not a degree that makes you eligible for the state bar exam or to practice law in any state,” Baldwin said. “He cannot practice law with this degree. He cannot become a member or sit for a bar exam.”

A 2019 Buzzfeed News investigation revealed that executive juris doctors, degrees similar to what Farzam obtained, are exploitative. “What if you spent three years in law school, taking classes in contracts, torts, and constitutional law, and paying more than $11,000 a year, but—here’s the twist—at the end of it you weren’t a lawyer?” the article begins. “Many students find that what seems like it could be a leg up amounts to little more than an expensive education in the difference one letter makes.”

Things only got weirder.

Eugene Volokh is a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who writes the  Volokh Conspiracy blog, hosted by the magazine Reason. Around the time The Atavist was fielding correspondence from Ashorzadeh, Volokh was trawling the Lumen Database, which collects all deindexing requests made to internet companies, most of which go to Google. The tech giant has a policy that allows anyone to make the case for removing a website or online article from its search results. Let’s say that a publication runs an article accusing a person of domestic abuse. The person proves in court that the article is libelous, but for whatever reason the publication won’t take it down. The person might submit the libel ruling to Google, which could deindex the article from searches of the person’s name.

Volokh is interested in attempts to exploit this policy. He has written extensively about the issue and uncovered more than 100 fraudulent attempts to deindex content. One of the surest ways to catch a suspicious request is to scour the Lumen archives, double-checking the claims of each and every applicant. That’s how he found a complaint about The Atavist.

The request was for Google to deindex my article. As support, it included a court order that seemed to oblige the clerk to seal the entire case against Farzam from public record. Volokh wanted to understand why such a tight condition existed, so he checked the docket. Like me, he couldn’t find any indication of a sealing order. Volokh reached out to the defense attorney named on the court order provided to Google. The lawyer had never heard of Farzam.

At this point, Volokh contacted both The Atavist and Farzam—through Ashorzadeh—for clarification. He also tried searching online for the exact language on the order sent to Google. That turned up a document in an unrelated case. The specs were largely identical—same defense attorney, same judge—but the defendant and the case number were different. It appeared to Volokh that someone had used that order as a template, replacing a few key details to make the one submitted to Google look legitimate.

Volokh reached out to California state prosecutors to share what he’d found. He also informed The Atavist. By late 2019, the problems with the deindexing request would be a matter of public record.

It was a busy time for Farzam, legally speaking. In May 2019, the California Coastal Commission had fined the Shore Hotel’s developer—Sunshine Enterprises, a company managed by the Farzam family—nearly $15.6 million for building and opening the property without the necessary permits. Near the end of the year, the commission agreed to allow the hotel to remain open under certain conditions: It had to price dozens of rooms at more affordable rates and pay an additional $2.3 million in mitigation fees, among other concessions. As of this writing, the hotel’s website features a pop-up notice announcing “COASTAL AFFORDABLE RATE: With rates at $183, a waived Destination Fee, reduced Parking Rates, take advantage of this offer before it’s gone!”

Around the time that the commission and Sunshine Enterprises reached their agreement, California brought new criminal charges against Farzam. There were four in total. All of them were felonies.

The first three—one for attempting to dissuade a witness and two for identity theft—relate to a woman named Libier Hernandez. She is the former director of housekeeping at the Shore Hotel. According to the November 2019 declaration in support of Farzam’s arrest, written by Detective Kenneth Bryant of the Los Angeles Police Department, Hernandez was scheduled to be deposed in a civil matter against Farzam in March 2017. She and her husband, Ivan, got a harassing phone call that “was spoofed” to appear like it came from her old cell number; the caller disguised his voice. The declaration in support of arrest also describes how a now defunct website, LibbyHernandez.com, was populated with a “fictitious criminal background” and personal information. “Hernandez believed that Farzam assembled the website to dissuade her from providing further testimony,” the declaration states. The declaration doesn’t identify which civil matter Hernandez was supposed to testify in. After she quit her job at the Shore Hotel in 2014, she joined several former employees in suing Farzam. In that suit, Hernandez claimed that Farzam had sent her a picture of his erect penis, called her into his office to display his erections on more than one occasion, and kissed her at least once. The suit ended with the plaintiffs agreeing to a dismissal in early 2018.

The fourth felony charge against Farzam is where The Atavist comes in. The state AG’s office claims that the hotelier “did unlawfully and with intent to defraud, forge and counterfeit a Los Angeles Superior Court seal.” According to the LAPD’s declaration in support of arrest, Eugene Volokh “observed a request to remove online content to both Google and The Atavist online Magazine. Professor Volokh requested a copy of the order”—a reference to the court document provided to Google—“and discovered the order was fraudulent.” The order appeared to come from Department 48 of the Los Angeles Superior Court. Employees told the LAPD that it is “not common practice” for a seal like the one that appeared on the order submitted to Google to be stamped on documents that the department issues. What’s more, Department 48 deals with civil claims, and the case against Farzam detailed in “Not Fuzz”—the one that the court order sent to Google supposedly applied to—was a criminal one.

On January 15, 2020, Farzam entered a courtroom in downtown Los Angeles for his first appearance in the case. He wore a gray suit, and his left arm was in a sling; it wasn’t clear what was wrong with it. For reasons the state AG’s office declined to specify during my reporting, Farzam’s appearance was postponed until March.

The deindexing attempt, thwarted thanks only to Volokh’s vigilant research, speaks to a mystery that I pondered while reporting “Not Fuzz.” A wealthy, prominent businessman was arrested several times over some two decades for flamboyant impersonation offenses. But when you googled him, most of the hits for Steve Farzam were articles about the city of Santa Monica praising his sustainability efforts or giving him awards. How was that possible?

Volokh told me that he hadn’t found any other deindexing requests that might benefit Farzam. Still, it seems that threatening or attempting to negotiate with publications are among Farzam’s habits. In 2015, I wrote an article about his legal problems for a Santa Monica daily newspaper where I was then employed. Over the next several months, Farzam sent the paper letters demanding that it remove the article. (It did not.) In February 2018, at the same time Farzam was threatening to sue the magazine, The Atavist’s then editor in chief, Evan Ratliff, got a phone call and a series of text messages from the hotelier. Farzam seemed to want to propose a deal in advance of his attempt to get his probation shortened. By then, “Not Fuzz” had been online for more than six months, and The Atavist had no intention of taking it down. “Hi Evan,” the first message read. “I had an idea I wanted to bounce of [sic] you. -Steve.” Farzam sent another one two days later that read, “??” Then, more than a week later, another message arrived: “Let’s talk for 2 mins. You have nothing to lose. It would be in both of our best interests since we are business owners. Otherwise this will be my last text message and I will not contact you anymore. Either way hope you have a great weekend.” Ratliff never responded.

It’s hard not to wonder if other publications have acquiesced to Farzam’s proposals or litigiousness. They wouldn’t be the only entities Farzam has set his sights on. When reporting “Not Fuzz,” I found online that he was registered with the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians. After I reached out to the organization asking why it would certify a convicted felon who had been repeatedly accused of impersonating public-safety officials, his status was changed to “not registered.”

A few months after my article appeared, Farzam sued the NREMT, alleging negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract, among other things. He claimed that he had fulfilled the necessary requirements of the organization’s certification process and yet the NREMT had “willfully and maliciously” revoked his certification on three separate occasions. The suit was dismissed the following May. Six months later, the NREMT’s board approved an internal policy empowering the organization to reject an applicant for certification based on prior criminal convictions.

As of this writing, the NREMT’s website indicates that Farzam is once again registered. In California, NREMT certification is a prerequisite to the state issuing someone a paramedic’s license. California has twice denied Farzam such a license. As cause, which I reported in “Not Fuzz,” it cited violations of the state’s health and safety code: “the commission of any fraudulent, dishonest, or corrupt act” and “conviction of any crime which is substantially related to the qualifications, functions, and duties of prehospital personnel,” as well as “demonstration of irrational behavior.”

For several months after its publication, the Atavist article was the top hit on Google when you searched for “Steve Farzam.” Now it’s the seventh. The first is his Twitter page. “COO Steve Farzam, JD, NREMT-P,” it reads—highlighting a degree to practice law that he doesn’t really have and a certification that he’s apparently had to fight just to keep on the books.