L.A. County assessor takes leave amid probe of his office

Embattled Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez said Friday that he was stepping aside, taking an indefinite leave of absence in response to the wide-ranging influence-peddling investigation of his office.

Noguez announced his departure amid growing pressure on him to resign. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is investigating whether he and his top aides illegally lowered property taxes for prominent contributors to his successful 2010 campaign. One former county appraiser was arrested in May, and investigators served search warrants at several assessor’s offices as well as at Noguez’s home.

Noguez will continue to receive his regular paycheck, said assessor’s office spokesman Louis Reyes. In 2011 Noguez’s base pay was $192,000, records show.

Noguez has denied any wrongdoing but in a statement Friday said that he decided it was best for the assessor’s office that he step aside.

“In the interest of restoring public confidence in the professionalism, integrity and impartiality of the assessor’s office, I intend to take a leave of absence from my duties as assessor,” Noguez wrote in a letter to the county’s Board of Supervisors. “I do not take this decision lightly.”

Noguez did not say how long he would stay away, but offered to begin his leave as soon as the board appoints a caretaker. Sources close to Noguez say at least one county supervisor has been in negotiations with former Assessor Rick Auerbach to fill the role. Auerbach told The Times: “If I can help, I’d like to help.” The board is scheduled to discuss the matter Wednesday.

As the county’s elected assessor, Noguez has been responsible for setting the taxable values of every piece of real estate in Los Angeles County, the nation’s largest property tax roll.

“This is a good thing for the assessor’s office as an institution,” Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said. “It provides an opportunity for institutional reforms and improvements.”

Noguez’s leave of absence might also aid the district attorney’s investigation, Cooley added, which “is made more difficult when the subject of the investigation is the head of the office. People might be more forthcoming in answering questions of our D.A. investigators and our prosecutors.”

The criminal investigation threw the agency into turmoil, with several top officials resigning in recent months as evidence of Noguez’s close ties to influential tax agents — consultants who make their living lobbying for lower tax bills — came to light.

Rank-and-file property appraisers have also complained publicly about pressure from Noguez and his top staff to lower assessed values for favored contributors.

Although Noguez remains the only elected official targeted by the investigation, a number of “other public officials and private citizens” are also targets, Cooley said in an interview with The Times last month.

On April 25, investigators served search warrants at assessor’s office locations across the county, at Noguez’s Huntington Park home and at the Phoenix-area home and office of Ramin Salari, a property tax consultant and prominent fundraiser for Noguez.

Investigators also searched the offices of Mark McNeil and Andrew Stephens, two of Noguez’s top aides in the assessor’s office. McNeil has denied any wrongdoing. The Times could not reach Stephens for comment.

Salari built a successful business persuading the assessor’s office to lower his clients’ property assessments. He has admitted in court documents that he solicited campaign contributions for Noguez from all of his clients. But he has denied any wrongdoing.

“It’s a shame [Noguez] has been driven from office before any evidence has been presented before a legal tribunal, demonstrating that he did anything wrong,” said Mark Werksman, attorney for Salari. “But I understand because of the district attorney’s public pronouncements and the incessant press coverage of this matter, he would find it impossible to effectively function in his position.”

Noguez’s decision “has no bearing on my client who has done nothing wrong,” Werksman added.

Salari and his immediate family members contributed $10,000 to Noguez’s campaign, records show.

Salari’s clients dominated a list of more than 100 Westside property owners who got secret, improper reductions from former assessor’s office employee Scott Schenter. Last month, Schenter was arrested on fraud charges related to those reductions and he is facing more than 30 years in jail if convicted on all counts. He has pleaded not guilty and is due back in court next week.

Before his arrest, Schenter told The Times he made the reductions in hopes of generating campaign contributions for Noguez.

Noguez has denied instructing Schenter to lower the assessments, but has admitted asking him to look into some of the properties and asking him to help raise funds.

Word of Noguez’s departure was welcomed by county officials.

“I think John Noguez made the right decision,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “His absence from the department during this difficult time will allow the staff and the board to focus on restoring public trust in the management and operation of the assessor’s office.”

Noguez’s attorney, Michael Proctor, said his client “is doing the noble thing today. He cares about the people and purpose of the office, and is doing this to allow the professionals there to do their jobs without distraction.”

Times staff writers Jack Leonard and Jason Song contributed to this report.