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L.A. County assessor's donor got tax break from unusual delay

Checking records since 2008, the office finds no other home buyer whose reassessment had been delayed at least a year following a claim that personal property had been included in the deal.

April 15, 2012|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times

The nearly $200,000 tax break that Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez's staff extended to a generous campaign contributor is the only one of its kind in years, a county spokesman said.

Prominent real estate executive Jordan Kaplan paid $21.5 million for a seven-bedroom Pacific Palisades mansion in August 2010. But nearly two years later, the assessor's office has still not taken the typically routine step of replacing the previous assessed value of the property, $11.5 million, with the new sales price.

Because property taxes are calculated using the "fair market value" of a home, the long delay has saved Kaplan about $10,421 a month on his property taxes. Kaplan, his immediate family, co-workers and employees contributed $30,000 to Noguez's 2010 election campaign.

When The Times asked in late March why Kaplan's house still had not been reassessed, Noguez's chief of staff, George Renkei, denied that the delay was a favor to a generous supporter.

Instead, he said, it was a "courtesy" occasionally offered to buyers when valuable personal property like art — which cannot be taxed — is left in a house and included in the sales price. Such buyers are given time to produce documentation showing how much they paid for the house and land.

But Renkei could not say how many other buyers have received the same courtesy.

The answer is none, at least since Jan. 1, 2008, assessor's spokesman Louis Reyes wrote in an email Friday.

Responding to a Times public record request, the assessor's office searched thousands of records going back more than four years looking for another home buyer whose reassessment had been delayed at least a year following a claim that personal property had been included in the deal.

Noguez is at the center of an ongoing influence-peddling probe launched last year by the L.A. County district attorney. Investigators are looking into allegations that Noguez, a career county appraiser who won the agency's top job in November 2010 after raising more than $1 million in campaign contributions, did favors for another prominent donor and fundraiser.

Investigators are also examining Noguez's relationship with a former employee in the assessor's Culver City office who has admitted to secretly and improperly lowering property values for 125 wealthy Westside owners.

And Noguez came under fire last week from county supervisors who demanded an audit of his office after he drastically lowered his estimate of the county's expected tax revenue.

Real estate mogul Kaplan's lengthy tax reprieve began the month Noguez was sworn in, December 2010. That's when Kaplan told the assessor's office that his purchase of the house from Paramount Pictures Chairman Brad Grey included about $3 million in fine art and other valuables.

In an interview with The Times last month, Kaplan's attorney, Robert Slavin, said the sale also included furniture, "movie industry" valuables and a pond stocked with pricey Japanese koi.

A person with intimate knowledge of the sale, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, said that Grey did not sell Kaplan any art or furniture and that the pond contained nothing but bass and bluegill. Grey did leave behind two movie cameras worth perhaps $60,000, the person said.

Late last month, Kaplan still had not provided documentation to prove there was more to the deal than the house and land, county officials said.

So the assessor's office is "in the process" of raising Kaplan's assessed value to $21.5 million, Reyes said Friday. The agency's website showed that Kaplan, chief executive of Douglas Emmett, one of Los Angeles' largest commercial real estate firms, is still paying taxes on the pre-sale value.

If the assessor's office raises the assessment, Kaplan will get a bill for the difference between the taxes on the old value and the new value for the time he has owned the house. But he will not be charged interest.

In a string of internal assessor's office emails obtained by The Times, staffers began expressing their frustration last year over Kaplan's apparent special treatment and the high-ranking agency executives in Noguez's office — including Renkei — who they said ordered it.

In a February 2012 email to the appraiser handling the case, a supervisor, Alexander Yotsov, wrote, "Is the county in a position to loan money free of interest for over a year in this economic environment?"

Kaplan spokesman Steve Getzug said representatives from the assessor's office have been invited to visit the house and "look around, do whatever needs to be done to get the valuation settled." They have not come, Getzug said.

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