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Raids expand probe of assessor

Investigators sweep the homes of John Noguez and a campaign donor

April 26, 2012|Jack Dolan and Ruben Vives
  • Boxes of evidence are removed from Los Angeles County Assessor's office in Culver City.
Boxes of evidence are removed from Los Angeles County Assessor's… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

A corruption probe into Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez widened as investigators in two states served search warrants on a dozen locations, and new details emerged about Noguez's personal attention to the tax concerns of generous campaign contributors.

As helicopters circled overhead, officials from the district attorney's office combed Noguez's Huntington Park home for several hours Wednesday, eventually carting away boxes of potential evidence.

Noguez could not be reached for comment because he was in Mexico, said spokesman Louis Reyes. Noguez left the country last week to spend time with family following the death of his father, Reyes said. "The department is fully cooperating with the district attorney in their investigation," he said.

At least 10 investigators raided the Phoenix-area home of businessman Ramin Salari, a friend and campaign contributor to Noguez who has secured large tax reductions for residential and commercial property owners.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, April 27, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Noguez investigation: An article in the April 26 Section A about searches in a dozen locations connected with the corruption probe of Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez included a photo caption that said investigators were carrying files and hard drives taken from Noguez's residence. The photo showed materials being removed from the assessor's Culver City satellite office.

Noguez's relationship with Salari has been at the center of an influence-peddling probe launched last year after assessor's office employees complained that Salari and his wealthy clients were getting special treatment from Noguez and his top aides.

One of those aides, Mark McNeil, insisted Wednesday that he had done nothing wrong , as investigators were inside his Culver City office confiscating his computer, cellphone and boxes of files. But he acknowledged that Noguez "might have" asked him to keep an eye on appeals from some prominent donors.

"Not for any improper purpose," said McNeil, who until his recent transfer to the assessor's Culver City satellite office had been in charge of assessing the taxable values for large commercial properties in Los Angeles County. Noguez "might have said, 'Hey, we got an appeal coming in from somebody', but he wouldn't give me specific instructions on what to do."

A former employee in the Culver City office recently told The Times that he secretly and improperly slashed the taxable values of more than 100 Westside properties in the hope that their wealthy owners would donate money to help retire debt Noguez had amassed during his successful 2010 campaign for assessor.

Scott Schenter, who resigned in lieu of termination last year after his improper reductions were discovered, said he acted after Noguez applied "brutal" pressure to raise money.

Noguez, who had been an employee of the assessor's office for more than 20 years before running for the top job, raised more than a million dollars in donations for the campaign. Much of that came from real estate agents, large property owners and "tax agents," such as Salari, who represents owners seeking reductions in their property taxes.

Noguez's most formidable competitor raised less than $50,000, county campaign records show.

After news of the raids broke Wednesday morning, county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich issued a statement encouraging the district attorney's office to "act expeditiously to expose and extinguish any undue influence or unethical dealings" at the assessor's office and "to restore the public's trust in the office as swiftly as possible."

Antonovich is the only county supervisor who did not endorse Noguez's 2010 campaign. The other four either declined to comment or could not be reached Wednesday.

A disheveled Noguez came under fire at a recent board hearing after he acknowledged drastically overestimating the amount of tax revenue the county could expect.

In December, Noguez projected that the county's property tax base would grow by $18.7 billion for the next fiscal year. But, earlier this month, he revised the estimate to $5.1 billion in growth, which could lead to the county receiving almost $50 million less than expected in revenues.

Supervisors were incredulous at the dramatic change and approved an audit of Noguez's estimates and his office.

"It just doesn't compute," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. "I don't mean this as an insult ... but it appears you had no clue throughout the year."

Search warrants also were executed at the assessor's office in the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration, satellite offices across the county and two Internet service providers, said Dave Demerjian, head of the district attorney's public integrity unit.

Salari's attorney, Mark Werksman, denied his client had done anything wrong.

"This is a witch hunt," Werksman said. "The assessor's office is dysfunctional and hostile to taxpayers, and because of Mr. Salari's aggressive and successful representation of taxpayers, they're going to crush him by these punitive means."

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jack.dolan@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jason Song contributed to this report.

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