Los Angeles County Assessor, 2 Others Arrested
By Terri Vermeulen Keith, City News Service
Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez, who has been on leave while investigators probed allegations that his office reduced property tax assessments in exchange for campaign contributions, was arrested Wednesday along with two other people.
Noguez, whose real name is Juan Renaldo Rodriguez, was taken into custody shortly before 8:30 a.m. Wednesday at his Huntington Park home by District Attorney’s Office investigators, according to prosecutors.
The 47-year-old county assessor – who was elected in November 2010 – was being held in lieu of $1.385 million bail. He is charged with 24 felony counts, including 13 counts of misappropriation by a public officer, five counts of perjury, four counts of accepting bribes and two counts of conspiracy.
“Criminal charges filed against the assessor allege that instead of acting in the best interests of the citizens of Los Angeles County he turned his back on them to engineer assessment reductions for those who paid for favored treatment,” District Attorney Steve Cooley said.
Also arrested Wednesday were Mark McNeil, a principal assessor promoted by Noguez to head the Major Appraisal Division, and Ramin Salari, a tax consultant and Noguez campaign contributor, according to prosecutors.
“Tax consultant Salari is accused of bribing the assessor to win big tax breaks for his clients while lining the assessor’s pockets with cash,” the district attorney said.
The assessor appointed McNeil as head of the Major Appraisal Division “to ensure that Salari’s clients got tax breaks, ranging in some cases to $150,000 or more per piece of property,” Cooley told reporters.
McNeil is charged with 13 felony counts of misappropriation by a public officer and one felony count of conspiracy. He was taken into custody at his West Los Angeles home and was being held in lieu of $1.16 million bail.
Salari is charged with 23 felonies – 13 counts of misappropriation, eight counts of bribing an executive officer and two counts of conspiracy. He was arrested in Encino and was jailed in lieu of $1.36 million bail.
The criminal complaint alleges that Noguez accepted $185,000 in bribes from Salari between February 2010 and September 2010. Salari is also accused of paying $100,000 in bribes to a former appraiser, Scott Schenter, who was arrested in May in connection with corruption allegations and was the first to be charged.
Soon after receiving the checks and a list of properties represented by Salari, McNeil or his representatives appeared at Assessment Appeals Board hearings that resulted in the reduction of the assessed value on numerous properties, including the Old Spaghetti Factory and properties in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Hermosa Beach and Torrance, according to the criminal complaint.
The criminal complaint also alleges that Noguez approached Schenter between October 2010 and November 2010 and told him to “take care of our buddy Ramin” and “we have to take care of our donors.”
Schenter was arrested May 21 in connection with allegations that he falsified documents and reduced property values by $172 million in exchange for campaign contributions to Noguez.
Schenter is awaiting a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to require him to stand trial on 30 felony counts each of falsifying accounts and falsifying records.
It was not immediately clear when Noguez, Salari and McNeil would be arraigned in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Noguez’s attorney, Michael J. Proctor, said in a written statement that the defense “will vigorously defend Mr. Noguez in the courts, which is where this should play out.”
Defense attorney Mark Werksman called the charges against Salari “baseless” and said they “completely distort the relationship between Mr. Salari and the county assessor’s office.”
“He never bribed anyone and he never received any advantage on behalf of his clients. The reductions that he got in tax assessments were based on the merits of each application and most were sustained on appeal,” Werksman said.
The district attorney said the arrests were part of an “ongoing, multi-faceted investigation” into allegations of public corruption in the assessor’s office.
Cooley – who has worked for the District Attorney’s Office for nearly four decades and called in May for Noguez to resign – said, “This particular case, what I know about it, strikes me as the largest and most significant public corruption case in terms of county government, very, very significant, very substantial. This is an elected official and this is a serious case involving bribery and corruption.”
Cooley said “there may be more to come in terms of other aspects of this case.”
Deputy District Attorney Susan Schwartz said the estimated loss to the taxpayers involving the counts filed was $1.16 million.
“It was the Westside primarily. In this case alone, there were 13 properties affected,” Schwartz said. “That is nowhere near what we believe the total number of properties affected will be.”
October 18, 2012 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.