A top assistant to Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez resigned in protest three months ago after being pulled off two cases in which he opposed massive tax breaks sought by a businessman who financially supported Noguez's 2010 campaign for the office.
Dave Zoraster, whom Noguez hired in July to restore "professionalism" to the county's appraisal process, told The Times in an interview that he refused to knock a combined $70 million off the assessed values of two Hermosa Beach apartment complexes.
The owner of the properties had hired tax agent Ramin Salari, a Noguez campaign fundraiser at the center of a county district attorney inquiry into allegations of special favors granted by Noguez.
The reductions sought by Salari, which are still pending, would save the owners an estimated $875,000 on their annual property tax bills. Salari typically charges clients half of any savings he wins.
"I quit because of Mr. Salari's influence with the assessor and with some of his senior staff members," Zoraster said of his December departure.
Zoraster's claim of favoritism in the assessor's office — which is responsible for setting the taxable value of all real estate in Los Angeles County, the nation's largest property tax roll — is the latest in a series of allegations that Salari has wielded undue influence since Noguez's election.
Criminal investigators are pursuing claims by several Salari clients who have said the tax agent sold his services by talking up his close relationship with Noguez, and instructed them to give money to Noguez's campaign. Investigators are also looking into a formal complaint from a current employee who claimed Noguez sent three top officials to his office to "chastise" him after he had opposed Salari on a similar proposed reduction. Salari was also at the meeting.
In an interview Tuesday, 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.
Salari could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Mark Werksman, said Salari had never used his relationship with Noguez for any unlawful or inappropriate purpose. Responding to the growing list of people who allege otherwise, Werksman said, "There are detractors out there who are motivated by some kind of bias that we just can't fathom."
Zoraster, 66, began his property-appraisal career at the Los Angeles County assessor's office in the 1970s. He then spent 33 years at CB Richard Ellis, rising to vice president at one of the largest commercial real estate brokers in the country.
Last spring, Noguez asked Zoraster to return to the assessor's office as his special assistant. He wanted Zoraster to train other appraisers and "help restore the professionalism this office is known for," Noguez said.
Zoraster took the job in July but, he said, it wasn't long before he started hearing complaints from other staff about Salari's influence with Noguez. Getting pulled off the two Hermosa Beach cases in December, he said, was "the final straw."
"I was surprised and very disappointed.... I'd known John for close to 20 years and thought very highly of him," Zoraster said.
In late 2011, Salari took his case for the reductions to the county's Assessment Appeals Board, three judges appointed by the Board of Supervisors who hear testimony from the assessor's office and the property owner and then settle on a final value.
Salari is asking the county to reduce the assessed value of the first Hermosa Beach property, the Playa Pacifica apartments, from $73 million to $35 million. He wants the second property, the Gallery Apartments, reduced from $67 million to $35 million.
Zoraster said the poor real estate market may make some reduction justifiable, "but nothing near the scale Mr. Salari wanted and is still pushing for."
Noguez removed Zoraster from the cases days before the first hearing Dec. 6. Zoraster said the person who replaced him "does not appear to have the same enthusiasm" for protecting the county tax roll.
Noguez said he made the move out of a sense of fairness because he worried there was a personal problem between Zoraster and Salari.
"It looked like [Zoraster] had dug in his feet and didn't like working with some people," Noguez said.
Chris Carlos, Noguez's chief of staff, said Zoraster had "made his disdain for Mr. Salari very clear to me.... He thought he had a big mouth, he thought he was brash, he thought he rubbed people the wrong way."
Since leaving the county, Zoraster has accepted a job at his old firm.
Before his election, Noguez was an up-and-coming employee at the assessor's office. Some of Salari's clients have told The Times that he hit them up for campaign contributions for Noguez after successfully getting the values of their properties reduced.
One former client, downtown Los Angeles property owner Abraham Mosaddegh, said Salari had been "so pushy, so cocky" that he resisted hiring him for years. He said he changed his mind in 2009 when he heard that Noguez had personally recommended Salari.
It didn't take Salari long to reduce the assessed value of his office building from about $28 million to about $16 million, Mosaddegh said, dropping his tax bill by more than $132,000. Salari's cut was more than $66,000. Salari is suing Mosaddegh, alleging that he is owed his commission for additional years.
A few months later, after Noguez announced his campaign to become the county's elected assessor, Mosaddegh said Salari asked him for a $2,000 campaign contribution.
"He said he was asking the same amount from all of his clients," Mosaddegh said. "He certainly wasn't shy."