L.A. County assessor arrested in bribery case
About six months before John Noguez was elected Los Angeles County assessor, he received an $80,000 check from his old friend and prominent property tax consultant, Ramin Salari. Over the next few months, Salari cut Noguez two more checks, for a total of $180,000.
In return, authorities say, assessor officials began giving tax breaks to many of Salari’s clients.
Prosecutors on Wednesday alleged that the payments to Noguez — and an additional $100,000 given to a lower-level assessor’s official — were bribes to illegally reduce the values of properties so that Salari’s clients would pay less in taxes. The alleged scam deprived the county of at least $1.16 million in tax revenue, according to prosecutors.
Noguez, Salari and a top executive in the assessor’s office, Mark McNeil, were arrested and charged with conspiracy and misappropriation of public funds following a yearlong influence peddling investigation that has roiled the office responsible for determining property taxes on more than 2 million homes and businesses.
In addition, Noguez and Salari are charged with bribery and Noguez is charged with perjury.
Prosecutors began probing the case last year. In April, investigators served a search warrant at Noguez’s Huntington Park home and found what they characterized as a list from Salari of 18 properties whose values he wanted reduced. The assessor’s office made good on nearly all of Salari’s requests, prosecutors said.
Noguez and Salari described the alleged bribes as loans, according to prosecutors, who noted that Noguez only tried to pay back some of the money earlier this year “shortly after reporters from the Los Angeles Times began making inquiries regarding allegations of misconduct at the Assessor’s Office.” Prosecutors also described a $5,000 campaign contribution in February 2010 from Salari to Noguez as another bribe.
The knock on Noguez’s door came from Los Angeles County district attorney’s investigators about 8:20 a.m. Noguez, 47, was led away in handcuffs for booking at the county jail. Salari, 49, was arrested at a house in Encino, and McNeil, 54, was taken into custody at his West Los Angeles home. Each is being held on more than $1-million bail.
Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley described the case as the most significant public corruption scandal involving a county official in decades.
“Honest taxpayers and the public at large, it seems, were to be damned,” Cooley said. “Residents must have confidence that their government is not for sale to the highest bidder or the highest briber.”
All three men have steadfastly denied any wrongdoing throughout the course of the investigation.
Noguez’s attorney, Michael Proctor, said prosecutors had reneged on a promise that Noguez would get a chance to explain his side of the story before they moved forward.
“By arresting Mr. Noguez today,” Proctor wrote in an email to The Times, “the District Attorney’s Office is communicating that this was not in fact a search for truth, but a one-sided, result-driven investigation aimed at ‘getting’ Mr. Noguez.”
Salari’s attorney, Mark Werksman, said his client “advocated tirelessly for property owners and obtained large reductions in property taxes based upon the merits of each case.” Werksman added: “There was no corrupt relationship between John Noguez and Ramin Salari and any employees of the assessor’s office.”
The scandal came to light earlier this year when prosecutors acknowledged that they were looking into complaints from assessor’s office employees who said they were under pressure to lower property taxes for clients of prominent Noguez contributors, including Salari.
One complaint came from appraisers who resisted reducing the assessed value of a property represented by Salari from $44 million to $30 million. Noguez allowed Salari to go to the office and berate the employees who opposed the reduction “in a condescending and bellicose tone,” prosecutors alleged. It was highly unusual for a private tax consultant to be invited to such a meeting. Assessor’s office staff referred to the incident as “Black Tuesday,” according to investigators.
“The chutzpah is way out there,” Cooley said.
Prosecutors allege that the meeting demonstrated the “strategic alliance” between Noguez and Salari, who is paid a percentage — in some cases, 50% — of the tax reduction he wins.
McNeil’s role in the alleged scheme was to help carry out the tax reductions for Salari’s clients. Among the properties that received the reductions: The site of the shuttered Old Spaghetti Factory in Hollywood and parcels in Santa Monica, Hermosa Beach, Torrance and Los Angeles, according to court documents.
Some of Salari’s clients received six-figure tax refunds from the county, according to court records. The owner of two Hermosa Beach apartment complexes got refunds totaling more than $560,000, the documents show.
Cooley declined to say whether Salari’s clients knew about the bribery scheme, saying the investigation is ongoing. His office is also looking into whether some donors were illegally reimbursed for contributions to Noguez’s 2010 campaign.
Prosecutors have also been investigating a string of allegedly secret, improper tax breaks extended to wealthy Westside property owners shortly after Noguez’s election in November 2010.
Noguez took an indefinite, paid leave of absence from the $197,637 per year assessor’s job in June after former county appraiser Scott Schenter was charged with 60 felonies related to those reductions.
Prosecutors alleged Salari paid Schenter $100,000 in bribes to lower the values. Noguez told Schenter to “take care of our buddy Ramin,” and “we have to take care of our donors,” according to court documents.
Prosecutors also said Salari paid Schenter through intermediaries including the girlfriend of former USC running back Joe McKnight.
The NCAA began investigating links between Schenter and two former USC athletes, including McKnight, following a Times report that Schenter provided them cash and other benefits while they were still in school.
In addition, prosecutors said, “there is substantial evidence of bribes” from Salari to Schenter’s wife Dawn between 2002 and 2007, amounting to $175,000. None of the charges issued Wednesday relate to those payments, but prosecutors said they are continuing to investigate.
Schenter’s attorney, John Powers, declined to comment, saying he had not reviewed the newly filed court documents.
If convicted, Noguez, Salari, McNeil and Schenter could each be sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.
Despite his arrest, Noguez remains entitled to his salary unless he is convicted or recalled, officials said.
Times staff writers Andrew Khouri and Jason Song contributed to this report.
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