New details emerge in L.A. assessor corruption probe
A corruption probe into Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez widened as investigators in two states served search warrants on a dozen locations, and new details emerged about Noguez’s personal attention to the tax concerns of generous campaign contributors.
As helicopters circled overhead, officials from the district attorney’s office combed Noguez’s Huntington Park home for several hours Wednesday, eventually carting away boxes of potential evidence.
Noguez could not be reached for comment because he was in Mexico, spokesman Louis Reyes said. Noguez left the country last week to spend time with family following the death of his father, Reyes said. “The department is fully cooperating with the district attorney in their investigation,” he said.
At least 10 investigators raided the Phoenix-area home of businessman Ramin Salari, a friend and campaign contributor to Noguez who has secured large tax reductions for residential and commercial property owners.
Noguez’s relationship with Salari has been at the center of an influence-peddling probe launched last year after assessor’s office employees complained that Salari and his wealthy clients were getting special treatment from Noguez and his top aides.
One of those top aides, Mark McNeil, insisted that he had done nothing wrong Wednesday as investigators were inside his Culver City office confiscating his computer, cellphone and boxes of files. But he acknowledged that Noguez “might have” asked him to keep an eye on appeals from some prominent donors.
“Not for any improper purpose,” said McNeil, who until his recent transfer to the assessor’s Culver City satellite office had been in charge of assessing the taxable values for large commercial properties in Los Angeles County. “[Noguez] might have said, ‘Hey, we got an appeal coming in from somebody’, but he wouldn’t give me specific instructions on what to do.”
A former employee in the Culver City office recently told The Times that he secretly and improperly slashed the taxable values of more than 100 Westside properties in the hope that their wealthy owners would donate money to help retire debt Noguez had amassed during his successful 2010 campaign for assessor.
Scott Schenter, who resigned in lieu of termination last year after his improper reductions were discovered, said he acted after Noguez applied “brutal” pressure to raise money.
Noguez, who had been an employee of the assessor’s office for more than 20 years before running for the top job, raised more than $1 million in donations for the campaign. Much of that came from Realtors, large property owners and “tax agents,” such as Salari, who represents owners seeking reductions in their property taxes.
Noguez’s most formidable competitor raised less than $50,000, county campaign records show.
After news of the raids broke Wednesday morning, county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich issued a statement encouraging the district attorney’s office to “act expeditiously to expose and extinguish any undue influence or unethical dealings” at the assessor’s office and “to restore the public’s trust in the office as swiftly as possible.”
Antonovich is the only county supervisor who did not endorse Noguez’s 2010 campaign. Three others declined to comment or could not be reached Wednesday.
Supervisors control the assessor’s county funding and are beginning to consider next year’s budget, but Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said it didn’t make sense to make cuts over the allegations because it could make it harder for assessor’s employees to do their jobs.
“It seems counterproductive,” he said.
--Jack Dolan, Ruben Vives and Jason Song