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L.A. County assessor race shapes up without Noguez

Politics and GovernmentElectionsPublic OfficialsLee BacaZev YaroslavskyGloria MolinaJohn Chiang

A dozen candidates are in the running to be Los Angeles County's next assessor, but not incumbent Assessor John Noguez, who is battling public corruption charges.

Noguez still holds the title of assessor and continues to collect his $200,000 annual salary. But he has been on leave since June 2012, when district attorney's investigators were probing his role in an alleged bribery scheme involving tax consultant Ramin Salari. Prosecutors claim Noguez helped lower property tax bills for Salari's clients in return for money.

Noguez legally could have sought another term while awaiting trial, but his defense attorney, Michael J. Proctor, said this week that his client is "definitively not running for re-election."

"He is focused 100% on demonstrating he is innocent of the accusations that have been made against him," Proctor said in an email. "He cares about the assessor's office and the professionals who work there. He has no desire to detract from their mission."

That means this will be the first county election in decades in which no incumbent is on the ballot. In addition to the assessor's race, county Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina are leaving office because of term limits, and former Sheriff Lee Baca recently dropped out of the race for reelection and retired.

Most of those seeking to replace Noguez work in his office.

Jeffrey Prang, a West Hollywood city councilman and a public affairs special assistant in the assessor's office, reported raising about $125,000 in campaign cash as of Jan. 31, more than any competitor. He's lined up prominent endorsements from other elected officials, including state Controller John Chiang and Assembly Speaker John Pérez. Prang says his managerial experience makes him the best qualified candidate to lead the office, which determines the property value of more than 2 million parcels countywide.

His opponents criticize him for having been closely associated with Noguez, who hired him in March 2012.

Prang said he knew Noguez from local political circles, where they were among a handful of openly gay elected officials. He said he agreed to help the assessor's office manage public relations and what at first appeared to be a "political problem." When it later became clear that there could be criminal allegations, Prang said, he urged Noguez to step aside and let the Board of Supervisors appoint someone else to run the office day-to-day.

"The truth of the matter is, I only worked for John for four or five weeks that he was in the office, and most of that time, I was trying to put together a plan to get him out of the office," Prang said.

Other declared candidates from within the office include appraiser specialist Brilliant Manyere; supervising appraiser Frank Diaz Jr.; and appraisers Omar Haroon, Krish Kumar, Tracy Okida and John Loew. (Loew legally changed his middle name to "Lower Taxes" so he could have it printed on the ballot statement when he first ran for the assessor's office in 2000.)

Haroon, who has described himself as "a viable candidate who isn't a career politician," had raised about $80,000 through the most recent campaign fundraising reporting period that ended Jan. 31. Of that amount, $30,000 involved loans to himself.

Candidates John Morris, head deputy in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, and Monterey Park businessman John Wong, who served on the county's assessment appeals board for 18 years, are hoping their outsider credentials will help them in the race.

"While Noguez was doing this fraud and these people were working at the assessor's office, I was off putting white collar criminals in prison," Morris said.

Wong, who ran in 2010 and lost to Noguez in a runoff, said that as assessor he would bring back deputies who left because they were unhappy with the office under Noguez.

Another candidate, Bell Councilman Nestor Valencia, has filed papers to begin fundraising and said he plans to run. Valencia was elected to the Bell council in 2011 on a reform slate after most of the previous council members were arrested on public corruption charges.

"I do believe things can be reformed, but you've got to bring someone from the outside that brings no baggage, no entanglements," Valencia said.

Two other potential candidates, Richard Markowski and Donato Garcia, have also filed paperwork allowing them to begin raising money.

If Noguez, as the incumbent, does not file to run for the seat by the March 7 deadline, the deadline for candidates to file will be extended another five days.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Politics and GovernmentElectionsPublic OfficialsLee BacaZev YaroslavskyGloria MolinaJohn Chiang
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