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Ex-appraiser says he cut values in hopes of donations to assessor

Scott Schenter says L.A. County Assessor John Noguez promised him a promotion and implied that it was tied to his reducing the valuations on pricey Westside homes. Noguez denies offering the promotion.

April 20, 2012|By Jack Dolan and Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez, right, speaks before county supervisors last week.
Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez, right, speaks before county supervisors… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

A former county appraiser who secretly and improperly slashed tens of millions of dollars from the taxable values of Westside properties in late 2010 said he did it in the hope that wealthy homeowners receiving the reductions would contribute money to Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez.

Scott Schenter, the former employee at the center of a criminal investigation roiling the assessor's office, said Noguez had promised him a promotion in the summer of 2010 in the midst of Noguez's successful election campaign.

After that, the pressure to raise money for the campaign was constant and "brutal," Schenter said in an interview with The Times. Although he contributed himself and got friends to contribute, Noguez "called me a few times just to say, 'Hey Scott, we need more people; we're way behind in donations.' "

Assessor's office spokesman Louis Reyes said Noguez was not available for an interview Thursday because he was in Mexico with his family mourning the recent death of his father.

But Reyes said Noguez told him over the phone that he "never offered Scott Schenter a promotion." Asked whether he'd pressured Schenter to raise money, Noguez told Reyes that "thousands of people" had raised funds for his campaign and "Scott was one of them."

Schenter resigned in January 2011 after his supervisor in the assessor's Culver City office discovered that he had reduced the taxable value of 151 properties in Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and other Westside communities without any explanation or authorization.

Schenter acknowledges that Noguez never specifically told him to reduce the values on the properties or said the promotion was contingent on his raising money for the campaign. "It was implied," Schenter said.

He said Noguez was in debt after the November election, despite raising more than $1 million for a race in which his most formidable opponent raised about $47,000. One day, Schenter said, Noguez called him and hinted at a way to help pay the bills.

Ramin Salari, a consultant who had made a fortune representing wealthy homeowners in their bids to get the assessor's office to reduce their property tax bills, "had a bunch of clients on the Westside," Schenter remembers Noguez telling him.

"I knew if I reduced their property values, Salari could get them to contribute to Noguez," Schenter told The Times.

So in late November and early December of 2010, Schenter said, he started making the reductions.

Salari's attorney, Mark Werksman, denied that Salari knew Schenter was reducing his clients' tax bills in the hope of attracting contributions for Noguez. "That's simply not true and there's no evidence of that," Werksman said.

On Thursday, Reyes said Noguez denied speaking to Schenter about Salari after the election.

Several of Salari's clients have told The Times that the tax agent solicited donations to Noguez during the campaign. In a deposition for a recent civil lawsuit that Salari filed against one of his clients for failing to pay his fee — typically 50% of any tax savings he wins — Salari confirmed that he sent emails to all of his clients regarding "campaign fundraising events" for Noguez.

When Salari was asked whether he had ever promised Noguez "favors or rewards" for reducing the taxable value of his clients' properties, his attorney interrupted, invoking the 5th Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, according to the deposition, whose contents were originally reported by Los Cerritos Community News.

About half a dozen of the owners who got improper reductions from Schenter contributed to Noguez, public records show. Among them were Mark Weinstein and Farrah Soleimani, whose oceanfront Marina del Rey condo went from an assessed value of $1.8 million to $950,000, temporarily cutting the couple's annual tax bill by about $10,000.

The pair gave $2,000 to Noguez's office holder account after the election, records show. In an interview earlier this year, Soleimani said the contribution had nothing to do with the reduction.

The head of the Los Angeles County district attorney's Public Integrity Division has acknowledged that his criminal investigators are probing the relationships among Noguez, Schenter and Salari.

Schenter said that at least two top Noguez aides, Mark McNeil and Andrew Stephens, also "kept coming at me in terms of wanting campaign contributions." Both got significant promotions after Noguez's swearing in, and neither had been promoted in the previous six years, county records show.

McNeil did not respond to a message left on his cellphone. Stephens could not be reached on Thursday afternoon.

Instead of getting his hoped-for promotion, Schenter found himself the subject of an internal investigation after the election. Owen Harris, the supervisor whose job Schenter said Noguez had promised him, discovered the improper reductions and immediately blew the whistle.

Unable to produce documentation defending the lower taxable values inserted into the county computer system, Schenter resigned to avoid getting fired. The property owners got letters from the assessor's office explaining that an "error" had been made and that their assessed values would go back up.

jack.dolan@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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