L.A. Now

L.A. County assessor denies any wrongdoing

Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez, responding to a district attorney's inquiry of his office, has denied any wrongdoing and revealed that he had taken steps to revalue more than 100 properties that improperly received tax reductions.

Earlier this month, prosecutors publicly confirmed that investigators with the district attorney's Public Integrity Unit were looking into the relationship between Noguez — the elected official responsible for setting the tax values of all real estate in the county — and Ramin Salari, a tax agent who has made a fortune winning huge property tax reductions for millionaire property owners.

Several of Salari's clients have said the agent sold his services by talking up his close relationship with Noguez, and instructed them to give money to Noguez's successful 2010 election campaign.

On Wednesday, Noguez denied doing any favors for Salari or his clients, but said he can't control what tax agents, like Salari, tell property owners when they are soliciting business.

"I'm a friend of his and maybe a thousand other people in L.A. County," Noguez said of Salari.

Criminal investigators also are following up on a formal complaint filed by employees in the assessor's Sylmar office, who allege that Noguez sent three top officials from his downtown headquarters to "chastise" a low-level appraiser who had disagreed with Salari about the value of a property he represented.

Salari showed up at the office for the meeting too.

Noguez acknowledged that he sent the three officials on the errand, but said he wasn't doing a favor for Salari or disciplining the employee. He said he was trying to make sure all county appraisers were using the same criteria in valuing properties.

"Consistency needs to be paramount," Noguez said, adding that he believed it was appropriate for Salari to have attended the meeting. "We encourage the outside community to come in with general information to help us."

Salari's attorney, Mark Werksman, said his client's relationship with Noguez is "totally lawful and appropriate and he never exploited that relationship for his own personal benefit or the benefit of his clients."

Managing the expectations of acquaintances who think they deserve special access has been an issue since taking office, said Noguez, who worked for decades as a county appraiser before running successfully for the agency's top job.

"I have told staff that if anyone ever mentions my name, you remind them that you know me also — throw it back in their face," Noguez said.

Since the collapse of real estate prices in 2008, county officials have been inundated with requests from property owners to have their property taxes reduced. The key to lowering a tax bill is to get the assessor's office to reduce its appraisal of the property's value.

Noguez said the obligation to treat everyone who applies for such a reduction fairly is central to his job — whether it's a multimillionaire tax agent trying to reduce a property tax bill for a large corporation or "a little old lady from Pasadena who needs the reduction to keep her house."

And things haven't always gone well for old friends.

The first big test of his administration's integrity came early, Noguez said, when he had to investigate a former co-worker accused of secretly slashing the assessed values of 166 properties on the Westside.

The appraiser, Scott Schenter, had found a "loophole" in the system that allowed him to reduce assessed values without his supervisor's approval, Noguez said. He declined to explain what the loophole was.

Most of the properties Schenter adjusted were worth well more than $1 million, records show. In one example, he altered the county computer system to show that a property assessed at $9.2 million in 2010 was worth only $6 million.

Owners typically save about $12,500 on their tax bill for a $1-million dollar reduction in assessed property value.

Asked whether Schenter received kickbacks from property owners or their agents, Noguez said he didn't know what motivated the manipulations.

"I was surprised" by Schenter's actions, Noguez said. "I'm still surprised."

Noguez began sending letters to the property owners in March 2011 informing them that an "error" had been made and that their assessed values would be restored to the prior amount.

Noguez said he did not know how many such letters were sent, or how much tax revenue the county lost because of Schenter's improper actions.

Some of the improperly reduced assessments accurately reflected the market value of the property, so no change to the tax bill was necessary, said George Renkei, one of three top deputies who joined Noguez for Wednesday's interview with Times reporters. Noguez's private attorney, Sheldon Sloan, also was present.

In May, after the letters had been sent to property owners correcting the errors, Noguez said he shared his findings with investigators in the district attorney's office. But by then prosecutors already were aware of the situation, Renkei said.

Schenter, who resigned in lieu of being fired, did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails requesting comment.

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