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L.A. County assessor backs bill inspired by probe of his office

Assemblyman wants to block campaign contributions by tax agents. Probe of Assessor John Noguez involves alleged tax breaks for prominent campaign donors.

May 12, 2012|By Jack Dolan and Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
  • L.A. County Assessor John Noguez supports a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Silver Lake) that would force tax agents to register as lobbyists.
L.A. County Assessor John Noguez supports a bill sponsored by Assemblyman… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

After complaints from Los Angeles County assessor's office employees worried that their boss may have extended improper tax breaks to prominent campaign contributors, state Assemblyman Mike Gatto decided to introduce a bill to curb such practices.

So he was shocked when Assessor John Noguez — whose alleged misdeeds inspired the proposed reform — beat him to the punch with a news release declaring his enthusiastic support for the bill, before it had been posted on the Legislature's website.

Noguez, who is the target of a wide-ranging corruption probe by the Los Angeles County district attorney, heralded the measure as a "long overdue and a much needed reform. I've offered my office's technical expertise and assistance to help move this important piece of legislation forward."

An indignant Gatto (D-Silver Lake) said, "I am not working with John Noguez on anything."

He stressed that he introduced the measure after discussions with rank-and-file assessor's office employees frustrated by seeing their assessments of property values, which are used to calculate property taxes, "tossed aside because somebody gave a campaign contribution."

The bill would require so-called tax agents — consultants hired by property owners to push the assessor for lower tax bills — to register as lobbyists. In many California counties, that would prohibit the agents from making campaign contributions to candidates for the assessor's office.

Investigators are pursuing allegations that Noguez did favors for tax agent Ramin Salari, who gave generously to Noguez's successful 2010 campaign, encouraged his clients to do the same, and had direct, personal access to Noguez and his senior staff.

On April 25, prosecutors executed a dozen search warrants in two states, hauling away computer hard drives, cellphones and documents from Noguez's Huntington Park home, Salari's home and office in Phoenix and assessor's offices throughout Los Angeles County. Both Noguez and Salari have denied any wrongdoing.

Among the properties that have caught the attention of investigators is the former Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant site on Sunset Boulevard. The developers who bought the land to build a condo and retail complex hired Salari to drive down the assessed value of the property while they won zoning approval for a 22-story tower. Salari succeeded; Noguez's staff now lists the fair market value of the land at $7.8 million. The property sold in August, however, for $21 million.

Making an already politically awkward situation a bit worse, Noguez's unwelcome public offer of partnership created a second source of embarrassment for Gatto, by revealing the proposed bill's number, AB 404 — which the lawmaker previously had designated as a measure to help preserve Native American languages in danger of becoming extinct.

Gatto had to explain that the urgency to address the assessor's office scandal, and a looming deadline for filing new bills, had forced him to "sacrifice one of our other priorities." David Quintana, political director for the California Tribal Business Alliance, said Gatto has assured him he would find another way to help the cause.

Other elected officials also have proven skeptical of Noguez's attempts to forge political alliances by calling for reform of his own practices.

After news of the criminal probe broke earlier this year, Noguez, who accepted tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from tax agents during his campaign for office, approached Los Angeles County supervisors with a proposal to ban such contributions in the future.

But he couldn't find any willing partners.

"It seemed a little odd to be working with the accused on this kind of reform," said Roxane Marquez, spokeswoman for Supervisor Gloria Molina.

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