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Assessor's employees, campaign donors testify in Noguez probe

L.A. County assessor's office employees and John Noguez campaign donors have begun testifying before a grand jury looking into allegations that Noguez and his staff gave tax breaks to political supporters.

July 16, 2012|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez is under investigation for allegedly giving tax breaks to political supporters.
Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez is under investigation for allegedly… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles County assessor's office employees and John Noguez campaign contributors have begun testifying before a grand jury as part of a wide-ranging criminal investigation into allegations that Noguez and his staff gave tax breaks to political supporters.

Prosecutors delivered a stack of subpoenas to the assessor's office last week, sources say, requiring current employees to appear before the panel. One of Noguez's closest friends, who worked on his successful 2010 campaign and subsequently got hired at the assessor's office, has already testified. So has Noguez's predecessor, former Assessor Robert Quon.

The college student daughter of a Beverly Hills campaign contributor also appeared before the jury last week.

For months the Los Angeles County district attorney's Public Integrity Unit has been investigating tips that Noguez and his chief deputies lowered assessed values — and, by extension, tax bills — on properties owned by campaign contributors and clients of a few well-connected tax consultants.

Noguez did not respond to a request for comment, but he has previously denied any wrongdoing.

Last week, USC student Daniella Cohan told a Times reporter outside the grand jury chambers that she had no idea why she had been summoned and that she had never contributed to Noguez.

But campaign records show that Cohan had made two contributions to Noguez totaling $2,000. Her parents, Ben and Angela Cohan, gave a combined $5,000, records show.

Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has said his investigators are looking into the possibility that Noguez's donors illegally exceeded campaign contribution limits by giving money in family members' names.

Reached several hours after her testimony last week, Cohan declined to say what she had told the jurors. But she said she had called her father, who reminded her that she had, in fact, given money to Noguez.

"I'm really not political," said the business major. "I didn't realize before that I had given. But I did."

Cohan's parents could not be reached for comment. Ben Cohan has a number of real estate businesses registered in his name.

Also summoned before the jury last week was Robert Meraz, a friend of Noguez who worked on the campaign and then got a job in the assessor's office, handling Noguez's calendars. Meraz refused to comment when he walked out of the jury room Wednesday afternoon.

In response to a request for copies of Noguez's calendars, which are public documents under the state's sunshine laws, spokesman Louis Reyes sent the newspaper two and a half years' worth of blank pages. After being ordered to turn over the documents by the county counsel, the assessor's office provided the calendars with nearly half of Noguez's appointments obscured by black Magic Marker — alleging that the redacted appointments were Noguez's personal business.

Noguez, who makes $192,000 a year, took an indefinite paid leave of absence last month as a result of the district attorney's investigation.

Investigators have searched a dozen locations in two states, including Noguez's office and his Huntington Park home. Two of his top deputies, whose offices were searched, have also been placed on paid leave.

In late May, investigators charged a former county appraiser, Scott Schenter, with 60 felony counts related to tax breaks extended to wealthy Westside property owners. Schenter told The Times he arranged some of the reductions in hopes of generating contributions to Noguez.

Through a spokesman, Noguez has acknowledged asking Schenter to "check the status" of some of those properties but has denied asking him to reduce their values.

Schenter spent more than a month in county jail on $1.5-million bail until that was reduced to $100,000 last week. Sources close to the investigation say Schenter is providing information to prosecutors.

Many of Schenter's improper reductions went to clients of well-known property tax consultant Ramin Salari. Along with family members, Salari contributed at least $10,000 to Noguez's campaign, records show. He has admitted encouraging all of his clients to contribute as well.

Investigators searched Salari's Phoenix-area home and business in April. But they have not subpoenaed him, or any of his family, to testify before the grand jury, said his attorney, Mark Werksman.

"It sounds like they're taking a dragnet approach, which is going to bring in a lot of evidence," Werksman said of the grand jury proceedings. "But none of it will point to any criminal activity or wrongdoing on the part of Ramin Salari."

jack.dolan@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

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