Virginia Men Face U.S. Trial In Peddling of Phony Purses

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

They are known as "purse parties," modern-day Tupperware parties with a twist: hundreds of designer handbags selling for hundreds of dollars off. Women known as "the purse ladies" run the gatherings at private homes.

"They were all the rage," said Peggy Stypula, an Alexandria resident who attended parties in Arlington and Fairfax counties. "The purses were spread out all over the house, and you walked around and picked out what you wanted."

But one partygoer in Northern Virginia suspected counterfeit couture and called police. Federal agents soon seized 30,000 purses from a Fairfax warehouse, including some from a tractor-trailer that pulled up during the search.

Now, prosecutors are taking to federal court the men they say provided phony merchandise. A father and son are scheduled to go on trial tomorrow in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, accused of supplying thousands of counterfeit handbags for the purse parties and also selling them at kiosks in malls throughout the Washington region, including Tysons Corner Center, Montgomery Mall and the Old Post Office Pavilion.

The trial in one of the nation's largest counterfeiting prosecutions will feature testimony from representatives of Gucci, Kate Spade and other leading designer labels, according to court documents. Exhibit A will be a sampling of hundreds of purses, hauled into the courtroom one box at a time.

The case is bringing scrutiny to a widespread problem that has been publicly visible for years: trafficking in handbags and other counterfeit goods. Shoppers in Washington and other major cities can find fake fancy designer purses on street vendor carts, but purse parties -- though perhaps more underground with the heightened law enforcement attention -- are still held in the suburbs.

Lalit Kumar Ohri, 63, and his son Gaurav Ohri, 29, are charged with conspiracy and trafficking in counterfeit goods. Prosecutors say the pair sold purses bearing the trademarks of at least nine leading designer labels, including Louis Vuitton, Prada and Burberry. The pair allegedly had the purses embossed with trademark-infringing labels or gave the labels to purchasers. Some purchasers reportedly affixed the labels with glue.

The U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria would not comment. Nina Ginsburg, an attorney for the Ohris, would say only that they deny knowingly selling counterfeit handbags.

Experts say the problem of trafficking in counterfeit goods has mushroomed in recent years with globalization and the lowering of trade barriers. Everything from medicine to car parts is counterfeited, according to the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition, a District-based industry group.

Among the leading fake items are designer handbags, known as knockoffs. "They're easy to counterfeit, they're small and they come in big containers from China," said Barbara Kolsun, senior vice president and general counsel of 7 For All Mankind and a former top official at Kate Spade.

She said selling the knockoffs "is stealing. You're stealing the name. It's no different than walking into a store and stealing a Kate Spade handbag off the shelves."

Even though it is a crime to sell such trademarked goods -- although not to purchase them -- enforcement is spotty, law enforcement officials said. Police have higher priorities, and federal prosecutors take only the biggest cases, so street vendors' booths and mall kiosks where knockoffs are sold often slip by.

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