By DAVID RYAN, Register Staff Writer
Last week, the Napa County District Attorney's Office sued three individuals for fraud for their work with Napa-based adoption agency Yunona U.S.A.
One of those men, Ivan Jerdev, is believed to be in Russia. Another, Napa resident Nick Sims, 66, said he quit the company months ago and had no role in working with American families who paid thousands of dollars to the company but never saw their wishes to adopt a child fulfilled.
Now, the third man named in the lawsuit, Alex Nikolenko, said he left the company in 2000 and had no role in the company's wrongdoing. But Nikolenko confirmed in a telephone interview that bribing foreign officials to facilitate adoptions to American families was part of Yunona's business plan.
Nikolenko, 38, said he worked with Yunona from 1995 until 2000 -- before the former clients who filed complaints with the district attorney's office had dealings with Yunona. Nikolenko now lives in Amherst, N.H. where he works as an interpreter.
Records of complaints made to the district attorney's office show the district attorney first learned of serious allegations against Yunona as early as April 2003, but no formal investigation was launched until November 2005, when police began looking into a Florida woman's allegations the company stole $13,500 from her in 2005.
Roberts said the district attorney's office had been hampered by the FBI because the agency didn't want the district attorney to jeopardize its investigation. Now that he recently learned federal prosecutors dropped the case, the district attorney's office will conduct its own probe of Yunona.
Special Agent Laray Quy, a spokeswoman for the FBI, has said the agency was "very familiar" with the allegations against the company, but would not confirm if it had or was investigating Yunona.
Luke MacCauley, spokesman with the U.S. Attorney's office in San Francisco, said he could not comment on whether federal law enforcement agents dropped the Yunona case.
"Our standard response to ongoing investigations is that we cannot confirm or deny an investigation," he said.
Yunona's known Web sites have been shut down since Jan. 9, when Napa Superior Court Commissioner Rodney Stone signed an injunction against Yunona.
Yunona operated several Web sites to attract clients by posting pictures of children from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia, Vietnam and Guatemala, then used coordinators hired by the company in those countries to shepherd clients through the adoption process.
Many of the complaints filed with the district attorney include allegations the company knew the children posted on its Web site were not available for adoption. Several people reported spending more than $10,000 to obtain a child, but received no refunds when the children they wanted were not available.
The district attorney's civil suit seeks $500,000 minimum fraud penalties from each defendant in the case for each victim in the case.
Sims said with most Yunona employees gone, he felt the district attorney's office was focusing unfairly on himself and Nikolenko.
"Practically everyone who worked for Yunona is gone, so it's hard to get information from even two years ago," Sims said.
Sims said he feels Jerdev knew the company was headed for trouble before he left for Russia in June, but didn't tell Sims.
"He was really, really a good guy but then the last couple years I don't know what happened to him," Sims said. "He spent more and more time in Russia."
Nikolenko said when he worked with Yunona there were no complaints of fraud that he knew of, but there were complaints.
"There's no such thing as 100 percent happy clients," he said. "You're not going to have 100 percent happy clients in any business, much less a business dealing with a sensitive subject such as this."
Nikolenko did say Yunona's foreign coordinators frequently bribed foreign officials with money American clients paid to Yunona.
"With some amount of money you could shorten the amount of the week-long time frame (for bureaucratic procedures) to one or two days and it would actually save money to the adoption families," he said. "It wasn't just typical to Yunona, it was everyone. Every single adoption agency was doing it."
Nikolenko said he worries about his reputation in his native country because Russian news services had spread word of the district attorney's lawsuit.