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L.A. County assessor at center of probe of tax bill reductions

Allegations of special favors granted to property owners sparked D.A.'s probe of Assessor John Noguez and his relationship with a consultant. More than 100 properties are under scrutiny for any evidence of improperly reduced valuations.

February 19, 2012|By Ruben Vives and Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez's dealings with a consultant are under investigation by the public integrity division of the district attorneys office.
Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez's dealings with a consultant…

The property taxes on a $28-million downtown office building were killing new owner Abraham Mosaddegh in early 2009, and his efforts to get county officials to lower their assessment of the building's value — and by extension his tax bill — were going nowhere.

Then, Mosaddegh said, an up-and-coming employee at the Los Angeles County assessor's office named John Noguez offered some friendly advice: Hire Ramin Salari, a flamboyant Ferrari-driving "tax agent" who had made a fortune winning dramatic reductions in property values for his clients.

"Sure enough, four months later, it went from about $28 million to about $16 million," Mosaddegh said during an interview last week. The lower assessed value dropped his county tax bill by more than $132,000, records show.

Today, the relationship between Salari and Noguez — who won election to county assessor in 2010 with generous contributions from the tax agent, his clients and his immediate family members — has caught the attention of prosecutors from the public integrity division of the district attorney's office.

The unit's criminal investigators opened an inquiry into allegations of special favors granted to property owners after complaints from assessor's office employees last year. Since then, the investigators have been interviewing current and former county officials about Salari and Noguez.

A prosecutor said the office is examining more than 100 properties to learn if their assessed values were improperly reduced.

Both Salari and Noguez refused multiple interview requests. Salari's criminal defense attorney, Mark Werksman, said his client "flatly denies exploiting his relationship with anyone at the assessor's office."

In an emailed statement from a spokesman on Friday afternoon, Noguez said, "I have never directed a property owner to hire any specific consultant." He added, "It is disappointing to learn that some of these consultants traded on knowing me in getting business for themselves."

But campaign finance records, interviews and county emails obtained by the Los Angeles Times indicate that Noguez and Salari have been close for years and have both benefited from the relationship.

Mosaddegh's request for a property tax reduction, which is among those under scrutiny by investigators, received Noguez's direct attention, records show. That interest began only after Salari was hired, Mosaddegh said.

Soon after he bought the building in 2007, Mosaddegh said, he was besieged by phone calls and visits from Salari, who told him he had highly placed contacts in the assessor's office and could get the assessed value reduced.

When Salari heard that Mosaddegh had appealed the assessment on his own, Salari joked about it, saying "you'll get nowhere," according to Mosaddegh.

"He was so pushy, so cocky, I really didn't like him," Mosaddegh said.

Then Mosaddegh's property manager, Pierre Toulakany, relayed a message from Noguez. "He didn't say Salari was the only agent," Toulakany said he told his boss, "but he said he was a very good agent."

That, Mosaddegh said, convinced him that Salari might be worth the high commission he was demanding: half of any tax savings he won. So he finally agreed to hire Salari in February 2009.

In March, Noguez sent Salari an email from his county address, telling him how much time he'd put into the case and drawing Salari's attention to a nearby property paying lower taxes that could be used to justify reducing Mosaddegh's bill.

On April 16, Noguez wrote to Salari again, saying he had "finalized" the proposed reduction with the lower-level county appraiser assigned to Mosaddegh's case and would be meeting with that appraiser's supervisor later in the day to "go over the parameters" of the deal, which would knock more than a third off the value of the historic downtown building, putting it on the tax roll at $16.9 million.

In an informal touch characteristic of the months-long exchange, Noguez threatened that he'd get a puppy to lick Salari "until you give in" if he wasn't satisfied with the proposed deal.

A few months after the reduction had been approved, Salari complained that the county was taking too long to refund Mosaddegh's $132,690. Salari was owed $66,345.

Once again, Noguez jumped on the case. On Aug. 26 he wrote to Salari saying he'd reached out to "a very close friend" in a separate agency, the county auditor-controller's office, to speed up the payment.

The next day Noguez wrote again, announcing that the check was on its way and informing Salari that the refund would have taken another six months without his help.

In his Friday statement, Noguez said the 2009 emails show he "provided the kind of exceptional public service that the Los Angeles County assessor's office has been known for."

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