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L.A. County acting assessor to probe tax breaks OK'd by Noguez

Noguez, arrested in a bribery case, approved tax breaks for downtown L.A. business owners who donated to his Huntington Park City Council account.

November 15, 2012|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez is shown at his arraignment in October 2012. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of taking bribes.
Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez is shown at his arraignment in October… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

Large tax breaks approved by Assessor John Noguez for downtown business owners who contributed to a little-known campaign fund will be investigated immediately, according to acting assessor Santos Kreimann.

When Noguez ran for office in 2010, more than $100,000 poured into a City Council fund he controlled in Huntington Park, where he was a councilman.

Most of that money came from downtown business owners with seemingly little interest in the small, working-class city. Only one check, for $250, came from a Huntington Park resident during the election year, records show.

Within months of winning office, Noguez and his top aides knocked at least $36 million off the assessed values of properties owned by donors to that Huntington Park fund, The Times reported Tuesday. 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.

"We had no knowledge of that fund," Kreimann said Wednesday, adding that his office had just requested documentation on the donors.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appointed Kreimann to oversee the assessor's office until the criminal investigation of Noguez came to a conclusion.

Noguez has been in jail since his arrest in mid-October for allegedly taking $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.

Unlike Noguez's official county campaign accounts, the city fund had no contribution limits, no restrictions on how the money could be spent, and its records were never posted online.

Most of the contributors to the Huntington Park account did not respond to The Times' requests for comment. Those who did said that any tax breaks they got after the election had nothing to do with their contributions.

Downtown property owner Ben Neman made separate $1,000 contributions to the Huntington Park account from six different companies he controls.

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.

"Noguez didn't do anything out of the ordinary; he's a very nice guy," 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."

Investigators from the district attorney's office have been carefully examining donations to Noguez's county campaign accounts for evidence of "money laundering" — typically business leaders directing employees to make political contributions and then reimbursing them, or people making contributions in the names of family members and reimbursing them.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Schwartz, the lead prosecutor on the Noguez case, declined to comment on whether her office was investigating donors to the Huntington Park fund.

Noguez, who is still collecting his $197,000 county salary, appeared in court Wednesday to ask that his bail be reduced from $1.16 million to $400,000. His attorney, Michael Proctor, said Noguez was a man of "modest means" and insisted that he was not a flight risk.

But L.A. County Superior Court Judge Shelly Torrealba disagreed. "If he were released I'm not certain he would return. He has a lot more to lose," she said. "That is not a chance this court is willing to take."

If convicted on all charges, Noguez faces up to 30 years in prison.

jack.dolan@latimes.com

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