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Noguez's council account offers leads in corruption probe

L.A. business owners — who later received tax cuts — were the main donors to an account Noguez held as Huntington Park councilman, records show.

November 12, 2012|By Jack Dolan and Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
  • John Noguez, shown at arraignment, had an office holder account as Huntington Park councilman that had no contribution limits, no restrictions on how the money could be spent and its records were never posted online for public scrutiny.
John Noguez, shown at arraignment, had an office holder account as Huntington… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

When John Noguez ran for Los Angeles County assessor in 2010, large donations started pouring into his City Council account in Huntington Park, where Noguez served as a councilman.

More than $100,000 flowed through the account that year, mostly from downtown Los Angeles business owners. Only one $250 donation came from a Huntington Park address, records show.

Within months of Noguez's election, he and his top aides knocked at least $36 million off the assessed values of properties owned by donors to that Huntington Park fund, a Times investigation has found. Those reductions lowered the donors' property taxes and prompted the county to write tax refund checks worth more than $557,000 to them in the first year of Noguez's term.

The list of donors to the Huntington Park account offers new leads for investigators probing corruption in the assessor's office. Noguez is now in jail after his arrest last month on charges that he took $185,000 in bribes from a prominent tax consultant and campaign contributor to lower taxes for properties on the Westside and in the South Bay.

A Times review of records shows that many of the contributions to Noguez's City Council account came from corporate entities registered to commercial property owners in downtown Los Angeles — where Noguez spent years appraising buildings. Unlike Noguez's official campaign accounts for county assessor, the Huntington Park fund had no contribution limits, no restrictions on how the money could be spent, and its records were never posted online for public scrutiny.

By giving to the Huntington Park fund, a donor could exceed the $2,000 individual contribution limits imposed by the county for the 2010 campaign.

Most of the contributors to the Huntington Park account did not return phone calls requesting comment for this story. Those who did speak said any tax breaks they got after the election were appropriate and had nothing to do with their contributions.

"Noguez didn't do anything out of the ordinary, he's a very nice guy," said Ben Neman, who on March 2, 2010, made six separate $1,000 contributions to the Huntington Park account from companies he controls. Neman owns commercial property in downtown Los Angeles.

The companies are registered to the same address — Neman's office on South Los Angeles Street in the garment district.

Within months of the election, Noguez and his staff reduced the taxable value of properties that Neman's companies own by $8.1 million, records show, generating $103,555 worth of refund checks from the county.

Neman said that all of his reductions were warranted due to the drop in real estate values, and that Noguez did him no favors. He also said he didn't know which Noguez account his money had gone to because his secretary handled the details.

"To be honest with you, this is the first time I'm hearing about this Huntington Park account," Neman said.

Businessmen Robert Hanasab and his father, Moosa, wrote $1,000 checks to the Huntington Park account from three companies registered to them at their downtown office across from Pershing Square, the records show.

Months after Noguez's election, the assessed value of the properties owned by the Hanasabs were reduced by $7.5 million, generating refund checks worth $148,835, records show.

"I don't remember how or why we contributed to that particular account," said Robert Hanasab, who said he hosted a fundraiser for Noguez because "he seemed like he was on the side of fairness."

Hanasab and family members also contributed $4,150 to Noguez's county campaign accounts, records show. Hanasab said he never discussed any "particular property" with Noguez. Instead of receiving favors from the assessor, Hanasab said he was disappointed by how difficult the process of appealing a property's value remained even after the election.

"You'd still have to fight tooth and nail with the assessor to give you just what you deserve," Hanasab said.

Noguez spread the money from his Huntington Park account to other candidates running for local and state offices. Thousands went to consultants who also worked on his county assessor campaign.

There's nothing in state law that would have prohibited Noguez from accepting unlimited contributions to his Huntington Park account and spending it on his assessor race, according to Gary Winuk, chief of enforcement for the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

Law enforcement sources, who requested anonymity because the case is ongoing, said prosecutors are looking at the Huntington Park contributions for any evidence that Noguez accepted them in exchange for reducing property tax bills.

One of Noguez's chief deputies in the assessor's office, Andrew C. Stephens, gave $1,000 to the official Noguez county campaign account two months before the election. Then, a day after the election, Nougez's Huntington Park account received a $6,000 check from an Andrew C. Stephens, whose employer is listed as Artisan Opportunistic Growth Fund.

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