Former L.A. County Assessor John Noguez again faces corruption charges
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has refiled charges against former county Assessor John Noguez, reviving the long-running bribery and public corruption case after an appellate court ordered its dismissal on a technical violation.
In a criminal complaint filed Monday, prosecutors accused Noguez along with Mark McNeil, a top official in the assessor’s office, and Arizona tax consultant Ramin Salari of participating in a scheme in which Noguez would accept bribes to illegally lower the values of properties across greater L.A. so that Salari’s clients would pay less in taxes.
Noguez was first arrested in 2012 and accused of accepting a $185,000 bribe, but the case was marked by delays owing in part to the tens of thousands of pages of evidence collected by investigators. At a preliminary hearing in the summer of 2018, a judge found sufficient evidence for the trio to stand trial.
However, the L.A. County district attorney’s office did not file a charging document within 15 days of the preliminary hearing.
In May, the 2nd District Court of Appeals ordered all charges against the trio dismissed because of the missed deadline, although the ruling did not prohibit Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey’s office from rebooting.
“The prosecution refiling the case was completely expected,” said Noguez’s defense attorney, Anthony Falangetti. “Mr. Noguez has always maintained that he’s innocent, and he continues to maintain he’s innocent. He intends to fight this.”
Stephen G. Larson, Salari’s defense attorney, who is also a former federal judge, said the charges were “completely meritless, both legally and factually.”
“I’m disappointed in the DA’s office. I don’t think they thought this through,” Larson added. “They should have used [the appellate ruling] as a time-out to reevaluate the evidence. This case is going to be driven into a brick wall. It’s really problematic on many levels.”
Larson said the case was flawed because it relied “on a highly unreliable witness” and because the lower tax assessments sought by Salari — brought about by lower property values in the aftermath of the Great Recession — were agreed upon and validated by the county’s assessment appeals board, a quasi-judicial body.
“We are very convinced that if this case goes to trial, we are confident the evidence will establish [Salari’s] innocence,” Larson added.
Noguez, a longtime Huntington Park city councilman who was elected in 2010 to serve as L.A. County’s tax assessor, was first led out of his home in handcuffs in 2012. Then-Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley described it as one of the most significant public corruption cases in county government in decades.
“Residents must have confidence that their government is not for sale to the highest bidder or the highest briber,” Cooley said at the time.
Prosecutors allege that McNeil’s role was to help obtain the tax reductions for Salari’s clients. Among the properties that received the reductions: The site of the shuttered Old Spaghetti Factory in Hollywood, a grocery store in Torrance and a seven-bedroom mansion in Bel-Air, according to court documents. Owners of parcels in Santa Monica, Hermosa Beach and Beverly Hills also benefited from the breaks.
Some refunds reached into six figures, according to court records, including two neighboring apartment complexes in Hermosa Beach, with refunds totaling more than $560,000.
Over the years, the case was amended several times, with the number of charges against Noguez fluctuating from 24 to 36 to 25. The latest complaint against him has 39 counts, including perjury, embezzlement, accepting a bribe, grand theft, misappropriation of public funds and conspiracy to commit grand theft.
Noguez faces a maximum sentence of 36 years in prison if convicted as charged. Salari faces 59 years in prison and McNeil, 22 years.
Marilyn Bednarski, the defense attorney representing McNeil, said in a statement that her client will prove his innocence in court.
“We believe it is a flawed circumstantial case based on the District Attorney’s Office misunderstanding of the laws applicable to tax laws,” Bednarski said.
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