Ex-appraiser arrested in probe of assessor’s office


A former Los Angeles County property appraiser accused of improperly slashing the value on more than 100 Westside homes and businesses was taken into custody in Oregon on Monday, marking the first arrest in the wide-ranging corruption probe into the assessor’s office.

Prosecutors say Scott Schenter, 49, falsified department documents and unlawfully lowered property values by $172 million for multimillion-dollar homes and businesses. Schenter allegedly secured campaign contributions from the owners for Assessor John Noguez, authorities said.

“The magnitude of Schenter’s suspected betrayal of public trust is almost inconceivable,” Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in a prepared statement. “We believe his actions are not isolated.”

Schenter, who resigned in lieu of termination in January 2011 after a supervisor discovered his alleged misconduct, is accused of 60 felony counts of falsifying records. U.S. marshals arrested Schenter at his father’s home in Hillsboro, a suburb of Portland,Ore., according to Eric Wahlstrom, spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service.

Prosecutors say they don’t know when Schenter will be extradited to Los Angeles.

Schenter told The Times last month that he secretly and improperly lowered property values to reduce the owners’ tax bills. He said he did it in the hope that the wealthy property owners would donate to Noguez.

Schenter also said Noguez offered him a promotion and, along with several top aides, had applied “brutal” pressure to raise campaign funds.

Through a spokesman, Noguez has denied offering Schenter a promotion, instructing him to lower the values of the Westside properties or asking him to approach the owners for contributions.

Noguez acknowledged, however, that he had asked Schenter to “check the status” of some of the properties. He has also admitted asking Schenter to help raise money for his campaign.

On Monday, Noguez’s attorney, Michael Proctor, said his client “intends to remain cooperative with this investigation. While I cannot comment directly on the new charges today, I remain convinced that as the facts come out people will understand that he has conducted his affairs in conformity with the law.”

Cooley has identified Noguez as a primary target of the broader influence-peddling investigation, which began last year. Also under scrutiny are several high-ranking assessor’s office employees and Noguez campaign contributors, including tax consultant Ramin Salari.

Salari’s clients dominated the list of property owners who received improper tax breaks from Schenter. Salari has denied any wrongdoing.

Last week, Cooley publicly urged Noguez to resign after warning that indictments are imminent. Noguez has also denied any wrongdoing and said he has no intention of stepping down.

In addition to Schenter’s alleged crimes, Cooley said his investigators were reviewing between 100 and 200 transactions in which top Noguez aides lowered assessed property values — often for generous contributors — despite appraisals done by assessor’s office staff showing the values should be higher.

In April, Cooley’s investigators searched Noguez’s home and office. They also searched the offices of top aides Mark McNeil and Andrew Stephens, the two men Noguez appointed to oversee reductions shortly after his election in November 2010.

Investigators also searched Salari’s Phoenix-area home and business, and two Internet service providers.

Before his resignation in 2011, Schenter had worked in the assessor’s office for more than 20 years, mostly appraising properties on the Westside. He was suspended in 2009 for violating the office’s code of ethics, records show, but the documents reveal no details about the case.

In his April interview with The Times, Schenter said Noguez had promised him a promotion in the summer of 2010 when Noguez was a high-ranking assessor’s office executive running for the agency’s top job.

After that, Schenter said the pressure to raise money for the campaign was constant and “brutal.” Although he contributed $1,000 himself and got friends to give money, he said Noguez would call him “to say ‘Hey, Scott, we need more people; we’re way behind in donations.’ ”

Schenter said McNeil and Stephens also “kept coming at him in terms of wanting campaign contributions.”

McNeil has denied discussing contributions with Schenter or doing anything improper, but he told The Times in April that Noguez “might have” asked him to keep an eye on appeals from prominent donors.

Stephens could not be reached for comment.

Schenter said Noguez’s campaign was in debt after the election, despite having raised more than $1 million in a race in which his chief rival raised less than $50,000.

One day not long after the election, Schenter said, Noguez called him and hinted at a way to help retire the debt.

Salari, who had built a successful business representing wealthy property owners in their bids to get the assessor’s office to cut their tax bills, “had a bunch of clients on the Westside,” Schenter remembered Noguez saying.

“I knew if I reduced their property values, Salari could get them to contribute to Noguez,” Schenter said.

Salari’s attorney, Mark Werksman, has denied that Salari knew Schenter was reducing his clients’ tax bills. He said that any reductions Salari won were legitimate.

Schenter acknowledged that Noguez never specifically told him to reduce the values on the properties or told him the promotion was contingent upon his raising money for the campaign. “It was implied,” Schenter said.

Schenter resigned after his supervisor in the assessor’s Culver City office discovered the improper reductions of more than 150 high-end properties in Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and other Westside communities.

After discovering the cuts, which wiped tens of millions of dollars from the county tax rolls, officials decided that a few were warranted due to the declining real estate market, even if they had been made without proper documentation or authorization.

For the rest, officials sent letters to the property owners explaining that an error had been made and that their tax bills would go back up.

In one such case, Schenter altered the county computer system to show that a 12,000-square-foot Brentwood home previously assessed at $9.2 million in 2010 was worth only $6 million.

That got the owner, a Salari client and Noguez campaign contributor named Rouhollah Esmailzadeh, an estimated $40,000 reduction in his tax bill. A.J. Esmailzadeh, a family member who answered the phone at the Oakmont Drive estate when The Times called in March, denied any wrongdoing.

“I know for a fact that we didn’t do anything like pay off someone,” he said.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles City Council members Dennis Zine and Paul Krekorian have scheduled a news conference to propose an independent examination of properties value assessments that were significantly reduced during Noguez’s term.