Ex-Healdsburg resident sought for questioning about anti-Semitic Hungarian website

To his neighbors, Bela Varga seemed like a nice guy who kept to himself.|

To his neighbors, Bela Varga seemed like a nice guy who kept to himself. The owner of a short-lived specialty spice shop in downtown Healdsburg, he played the keyboard and claimed to have learned about winemaking in his native Hungary.

One resident on the quiet cul-de-sac where he lived called Varga, 51, “a man of mystery,” especially after authorities showed up about a month ago to ask about him.

“An FBI woman agent showed me a picture. She asked me if I was familiar with him,” neighbor John Manning said.

Although some of his neighbors were unaware of it, Manning had heard previously that Varga was associated with a far-right Hungarian website known for its anti-Semitism and homophobia, which has drawn attention from the Hungarian government and even U.S. congressional representatives.

“I’m shocked. He’s always been so sweet and kind when I’ve talked to him,” said one neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous.

“It doesn’t fit the limited interaction we’ve had with him,” said Andrew Beard, his landlord of more than six years.

Last week, Varga also became a wanted man. A $300,000 bench warrant was issued for his arrest after he failed to show up twice in San Francisco court on criminal charges of stalking and harassing an attorney who obtained a subpoena to question him about his ties to the Hungarian website.

Varga’s family told neighbors he is in Canada, where he is a citizen.

The Fitch Mountain Villas townhouse where he lived with his wife Judit Pesti and their sons, 18 and 20 years old, now is empty, scarred from an upstairs fire on June 16. The cause appeared to be an electrical malfunction, according to the Healdsburg Fire Department.

Human rights groups say the website that Varga allegedly registered, kuruc.info, regularly disputes the Holocaust and organizes hate campaigns against Hungary’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and Roma communities.

“At present, kuruc.info is the most active hate group operating in Hungary,” said the Budapest-based Athena Institute. “Its main focus is the propaganda activities carried out on the group’s Internet site that it labels as a ‘news portal.’”

Although written in Hungarian, with content generated in that country, kuruc.info’s domain name was registered by Varga, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The lawsuit filed by Action and Protection Foundation, a Hungarian human rights organization, is seeking to gain more information about Varga’s ties to the website so that criminal and civil proceedings can proceed in Hungary, where there are laws against anti-Semitism.

“Under federal law, you can conduct discovery in support of foreign cases,” said Michael Sweet, the plaintiff’s attorney.

Last month, the human rights group obtained subpoenas issued by U.S. Magistrate Laurel Beeler to question Varga under oath about his links to kuruc.info, as well as a bank account in Sonoma County that he is said to have opened for the website.

Varga didn’t show up to contest the subpoenas.

Instead he is now accused of making death threats and stalking attorney Sweet over a period of six days in late April.

After being arrested, Varga pleaded not guilty to the charges on May 8 and was released from custody in lieu of $250,000 bail. But he subsequently failed to appear twice in court and his bail was forfeited, according to Assistant San Francisco District Attorney Alex Bastian, resulting in the $300,000 bench warrant issued last week.

Varga’s defense attorney, Nafiz Ahmed of Redwood City, declined comment Friday.

“I’m not going to be able to answer any questions about his case,” he said.

Sweet declined to discuss the alleged threats Varga made against him. But he said the District Attorney’s Office is “taking it seriously.”

An FBI spokesman did not reply to inquiries about the agency’s involvement with Varga.

In the civil case naming Varga, Sweet also targeted Cloudflare, the San Francisco-based web host used as a platform for the articles published by kuruc.info. The court also required the company to testify and provide documents about its connection with kuruc.info and Varga.

Asked if Cloudflare will comply with the subpoena, a spokeswoman said in an email Thursday that the company complies with all U.S. laws, regulations and court orders.

“If we believe the subpoena to be valid, we provide written notice to the customer of the subpoena, giving the customer opportunity to challenge the subpoena,” company representative Daniella Vallurupali said.

She declined to say whether Cloudflare would continue to act as a web host for the Hungarian website.

“Cloudflare has millions of customers and will not comment on a customer without that customer’s express permission,” she said.

Varga’s connection to kuruc.info first came to light in September 2012 in a report on another Hungarian political website, according to Jweekly.com, a Bay Area Jewish website. Subsequently, Varga was quoted in Healdsburg Patch.com as acknowledging he registered the far-right Hungarian website as a favor to friends in Hungary and also opened a bank account for them.

“I helped them out in 2008, when the government closed them down and they couldn’t open a bank account,” he reportedly told Patch, along with acknowledging some kuruc.info writers “leaned toward Nazism,” but saying he valued freedom of expression.

According to the lawsuit in federal court, kuruc.info published the home addresses and phone numbers of demonstrators outside the Budapest home of an accused Nazi collaborator who sent thousands of Hungarian Jews to their deaths in World War II. One newspaper article cited in the lawsuit said that kuruc.info offered a $340 bounty for every demonstrator outside the accused Nazi’s house, “courtesy of our comrade Bela Varga who lives in America.”

The climate of anti-Semitism and intolerance in Hungary two years ago drew the scrutiny of American legislators, who expressed alarm about a diatribe from a member of Jobbik, a Hungarian political party, who called Israeli Jews “lice infested dirty murderers.” In a letter from Rep. Joseph Crowley to Hungarian Prime Minister Orban Viktor, the New York congressman urged the Hungarian government to stand up to the hate speech “which denigrates, intimidates and scapegoats minorities in Hungary and has no place in any society.”

The letter was signed by 49 other members of Congress including Barbara Lee, D-Oakland.

In his letter of reply, the Hungarian prime minister said the anti-Semitic extremist forces are receiving their greatest support from the United States.

“The focal point of Hungarian anti-Semitism is a news portal, which to avoid the measures of the Hungarian government, fled to the United States and has been conducting its disgraceful activities from there,” Orban stated. “If this problem were to be resolved, then the Hungarian forces of anti-Semitism would be severely weakened.”

Around the time Vargas and his link to kuruc.info surfaced, his store, The Red Paprika, located across from the Healdsburg Plaza, moved a block north on Healdsburg Avenue. But it closed within months. The old Red Paprika location is now occupied by Gathered, a women’s accessories and gift store.

“There’s some backlash on us. People come in asking do we know him, or know anything about his political viewpoints,” said Cindy Holman, a store partner.

She said one older Jewish woman, an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor, came to the store after it was no longer Red Paprika. The woman told Holman that she encountered Varga at a pharmacy and spoke to him in Hungarian telling him, “I know who you are.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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