John Noguez, then Los Angeles County assessor, was walked out of his Huntington Park home in handcuffs one October day in 2012, accused of taking $185,000 in bribes from a tax consultant in exchange for orchestrating decreased property valuations that would mean lower tax bills for the consultant’s clients.
The tax agent, Ramin Salari, was also arrested and charged, along with Mark McNeil, an executive in the assessor’s office. It was one of the highest-profile public corruption cases in recent county history.
Nearly four years later, the case has not made it to trial, or even to a preliminary hearing that would determine whether it goes to trial. The preliminary hearing has been postponed more than a dozen times and is now set for October.
The lengthy delay has left some puzzled and others speculating that the case is going nowhere.
“I think the decision has been made that they’re just going to let him go,” said John Wong, a former member of the county’s assessment appeals board who ran against Noguez in 2010 and ran unsuccessfully to replace him in 2014. “I don’t see him being prosecuted at all. It’s just the way politics go in this county.”
L.A. County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who was the most vocal critic of Noguez in the months leading up to his arrest, blamed a “bogged-down” court system for the delays.
“It’s a miscarriage of justice,” he said in an emailed statement.
I don’t see him being prosecuted at all. It’s just the way politics go in this county.
Officials with the district attorney’s office said they are committed to prosecuting the case and blamed the delays on the massive amount of evidence that had to be turned over to defense attorneys to review, and on the fact that both Noguez and Salari switched lawyers midway through the proceedings. That meant the new attorneys had to start over in reviewing the evidence.
Prosecutor Craig Hum said the district attorney’s office had turned over more than 45,000 pages of evidence to the defense attorneys, along with recordings of interviews and thousands of pages of testimony before an investigative grand jury.
“We have been in court — we have been moving forward with the case,” he said. “It’s just taking a little longer than usual, even for these types of cases.”
The charges against Noguez and the others have also been amended several times. Noguez initially faced 24 counts of accepting bribes, misappropriation of public funds, conspiracy and perjury. In later complaints, the number of charges against him swelled to 36, but in the most recent amended complaint, filed earlier this month, it was reduced to 25.
As to the remaining counts, he said, “I think that the evidence is certainly more than sufficient, or we wouldn’t have filed the charges.”
Noguez’s attorney, Charles Frisco, who took over the case 10 months ago when Noguez requested to switch from a private attorney to court-appointed counsel, pointed to the four complaints and large amount of evidence turned over at the request of the defense.
“Based upon what I have reviewed, as well as our own investigation, Mr. Noguez will be cleared of any wrongdoing,” he said in an emailed statement.
Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor, said the lengthy delays could affect the outcome of the case.
“If the case is made on paper, it may not make much of a difference at all,” she said. “It does become more difficult if you’re going to rely on witness memories.”
Hum said he does not believe the prosecution will be harmed by the amount of time that has lapsed.
“In a case like this, it’s really not eyewitnesses describing what corner someone was standing on or something,” he said. “It’s almost all the documents.”
After his arrest, Noguez — whose birth name is Juan Renaldo Rodriguez — spent several months in jail before he was able to post bail with the help of supporters.
He remained on paid leave from the assessor’s office for two years, while the case was pending, until his term in office expired. In December 2014, he was replaced by the current assessor, Jeff Prang, a former West Hollywood city councilman who had worked as a special assistant in the assessor’s office.
County supervisors said at the time that they couldn’t cut off Noguez’s paycheck. Elected officials in California generally can’t be removed from office unless they are convicted of a job-related crime or voted out in a recall.
Gregg Rademacher, chief executive of the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Assn., said Noguez has withdrawn the money he had contributed to the county retirement system, meaning he will not be eligible to collect the money contributed by the county, but also will not be subject to forfeiture proceedings if convicted of a felony.
If convicted of all the charges against him, Noguez faces a potential 30-year prison sentence.
Regardless of the eventual outcome of the case, Levenson said: “From the defendant’s perspective, every day you’re not convicted is a good day.”