D.A.: Assessor 'turned his back' on taxpayers, accepted bribes
Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez accepted $185,000 in bribes and cost taxpayers $1.16 million, according to charges filed Wednesday as part of a yearlong political corruption probe into the office that determines property taxes on more than 2 million homes and businesses.
In announcing charges against Noguez, his aide Mark McNeil and campaign contributor Ramin Salari -- all three of whom were arrested Wednesday morning -- Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said property taxes were reduced in exchange for contributions.
“Los Angeles County voters and taxpayers deserve honest, hardworking elected and appointed officials who will serve the best interests of the people,” Cooley said. “Residents must have confidence that their government is not for sale to the highest bidder or the highest briber.”
Noguez, Salari and McNeil have all denied wrongdoing.
Last year, investigators for the Los Angeles County district attorney began probing secret, improper tax breaks granted to more than 100 wealthy Westside property owners since Noguez’s election. They also started looking into complaints from assessor’s office employees who claimed they were under pressure to lower property taxes for clients of prominent Noguez contributors, like Salari.
Salari’s attorney, Mark Werksman, said his client “advocated tirelessly for property owners and obtained large reductions in property taxes based upon the merits of each case.” Werksman added, “there was no corrupt relationship between John Noguez and Ramin Salari and any employees of the assessor's office.”
Noguez, who was arrested at his Huntington Park home, is accused of accepting $185,000 in bribes from Salari between February 2010 and September 2010, according to a news release by Cooley. Salari also provided Noguez with a list of properties he was representing. The charges against Noguez include bribery, perjury and conspiracy to misappropriate public funds.
Among the properties that received improper tax reductions are the now closed Old Spaghetti Factory in Hollywood and others in Santa Monica, Hermosa Beach, Torrance and Los Angeles, Cooley said.
"The criminal charges against the assessor allege that instead of acting in the best interest of the citizens of Los Angeles County, he turned his back on them to engineer assessment reductions for those who paid for favored treatment," Cooley said.
Cooley said Noguez appointed McNeil, one of his closest confidant in the office, to head the major appraisal division to ensure that Salari's clients got tax breaks of $150,000 or more per property.
Noguez’s attorney, Michael Proctor, said that prosecutors had reneged on a promise that Noguez would get a chance to explain his side of the story before they moved forward.
"By arresting Mr. Noguez today, before honoring that commitment, the district attorney’s office is communicating that this was not in fact a search for truth, but a one-sided, result-driven investigation aimed at 'getting' Mr. Noguez," Proctor wrote in an email.
In all, four people have been arrested in connection to the alleged corruption in the assessor's office. In June, ex-county appraiser Scott Schenter was charged with 60 felonies related to improper tax reductions.
Schenter has told The Times that he granted the reductions in the hope of inspiring the recipients -- many of whom were Salari’s clients -- to donate money to help pay off debt from Noguez’s campaign.
Noguez, who was elected in November 2010, has acknowledged asking Schenter to help raise money and to look into the Westside properties, but denies instructing him to reduce the owners’ taxes.
No arraignment date has been set for Noguez, McNeil or Salari. They remain in custody, with bail for all three set at more than $1 million.
-- Jack Dolan, Ruben Vives and Andrew Khouri