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Former L.A. County appraiser arraigned on 60 felony counts

May 25, 2012|Ruben Vives | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez is the only elected official targeted by the district attorney's investigation, but a number of other public officials and private citizens are also targets, D.A. Steve Cooley said.
Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez is the only elected official targeted… (Los Angeles Times )

Scott Schenter, the former Los Angeles County appraiser who was charged with falsifying records and unlawfully lowering property values by $172 million, was arraigned Friday afternoon.

Schenter, 49, pleaded not guilty to all 60 felony counts as he stood with his back to reporters, cameras and photographers in an attempt to avoid being photographed.

Prosecutors say Schenter slashed values of multimillion-dollar homes and businesses in Beverly Hills, Brentwood and Pacific Palisades.

Schenter, who resigned instead of being fired in January 2011 after a supervisor discovered his alleged misconduct, secured campaign contributions from the owners for Assessor John Noguez, prosecutors said.

Schenter's arraignment comes just days after he was arrested in Oregon. He remains in jail in lieu of $1.5-million bail.

A preliminary hearing is set for June. If convicted, the ex-appraiser faces up to 33 years in prison.

Schenter told The Times last month that he secretly and improperly lowered property values to reduce the owners' tax bills. He said he did it in the hope that the wealthy property owners would donate to Noguez.

Schenter also said Noguez offered him a promotion and, along with several top aides, had applied pressure to raise campaign funds.

Through a spokesman, Noguez has denied offering Schenter a promotion, instructing him to lower the values of the Westside properties or asking him to approach the owners for contributions.

Noguez acknowledged, however, that he asked Schenter to "check the status" of some of the properties. He has also admitted asking Schenter to help raise money for his campaign.

On Monday, Noguez's attorney, Michael Proctor, said his client intends to continue cooperating with the investigation.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has identified Noguez as one of the primary targets of the broader influence-peddling investigation, which began last year. Also under scrutiny are several high-ranking assessor's office employees and Noguez campaign contributors, including tax consultant Ramin Salari.

Salari's clients dominated the list of property owners who received improper tax breaks from Schenter. Salari has denied any wrongdoing.

Cooley has publicly urged Noguez to resign after warning that indictments were imminent. County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich has also called for the assessor's resignation.

Noguez has denied any wrongdoing and said he has no intention of stepping down.

In addition to Schenter's alleged crimes, Cooley said investigators were reviewing 100 to 200 transactions in which top Noguez aides lowered assessed property values -- often for generous contributors -- despite appraisals done by the assessor's office staff showing that the values should be higher.

In April, Cooley's investigators searched Noguez's home and office. They also searched the offices of top aides Mark McNeil and Andrew Stephens, the two men Noguez appointed to oversee reductions shortly after his election in November 2010.

In addition, investigators searched Salari's Phoenix-area home and business and two Internet service providers.

Before his resignation, Schenter had worked in the assessor's office for more than 20 years, mostly appraising properties on the Westside. He was suspended in 2009 for violating the office's code of ethics, records show, but the documents reveal no details about the case.

In his April interview with The Times, Schenter said Noguez had promised him a promotion in the summer of 2010 when Noguez was a high-ranking assessor's office executive running for the agency's top job. After that, Schenter said, the pressure to raise money for the campaign was constant and "brutal." Although he contributed $1,000 himself and got friends to give money, he said Noguez would call him "to say 'Hey, Scott, we need more people; we're way behind in donations.' "

Schenter said McNeil and Stephens also "kept coming at him in terms of wanting campaign contributions."

McNeil has denied discussing contributions with Schenter or doing anything improper, but he told The Times in April that Noguez "might have" asked him to keep an eye on appeals from prominent donors. Stephens could not be reached for comment.

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