Assessing L.A. County's assessor

When John Noguez, the former mayor of Huntington Park and a rising star in Democratic political circles, ran for Los Angeles County assessor in 2010, we pointed out the dangers of choosing a politician for the job, as opposed to a more managerial type. "Voters must try to pick someone who is relatively free from politics, because they don't want valuation decisions being made as rewards or punishments for political support," we wrote. That's why we endorsed John Y. Wong, chairman of the Assessment Appeals Board, a successful businessman and expert on real estate valuation.

Instead, voters chose Noguez. This may have had something to do with his fundraising prowess. Noguez raised nearly $1.1 million, which isn't bad for an assessor's race; Wong drummed up a mere $47,000. But as Times staff writers Ruben Vives and Jack Dolan reported Sunday, Noguez had help from a "tax agent" named Ramin Salari, who was in the business of winning lower assessments for clients and pocketing part of their resulting property tax savings. Some of Salari's former clients say that at election time, he hit them up for contributions to Noguez's campaign. And emails between Noguez and Salari suggest they had a tight relationship, with Noguez — who at the time was a supervisor in the assessor's office — going out of his way to speed payments to Salari's clients and get lowered assessments approved for them.

The district attorney's office has opened a criminal inquiry into alleged special favors granted by the assessor's office, and investigators are interviewing witnesses about Noguez and Salari. This doesn't mean L.A. County's assessor is guilty of any crime; it may well turn out, as Noguez argued in a statement issued Friday, that he was simply providing "exceptional public service" for Salari. Now it will be up to investigators to determine whether he provided the same exceptional service to non-contributors and whether assessments were changed for personal rather than market reasons. Meanwhile, the affair lends itself to two conclusions.

First, if Noguez has done nothing wrong, he could hardly do a better job of making himself look guilty than by ducking reporters and refusing to discuss the matter, which has been his tack so far. Second, even if his behavior wasn't illegal, that doesn't mean it won't turn out to have been a clear-cut political quid pro quo of the sort that ought to persuade voters, in the future, to choose an assessor who's all about real estate and management and not about political resume-building.

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